The racialized construction of exceptionality: Experimental evidence of race/ethnicity effects on teachers’ interventions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners have long argued that students of color are over-represented in special education and under-represented in gifted education, arguing that educators make racially/ethnically biased decisions to refer and qualify students with disabilities and giftedness. Recent research has called this into question, focusing on the role of confounders of race/ethnicity. However, the role of educator decisions in the disproportionality is still unclear. In this study, I examine the role of student race/ethnicity in teachers’ categorization of student needs as “exceptional” and in need of special or gifted education services. I use an original survey experiment in which teachers read case studies of fictional male students in which the race/ethnicity, English Language Learner status, and exceptionality characteristics were experimentally manipulated. The teachers are then asked whether they would refer the student for exceptionality testing. My findings suggest a complex intersection of race/ethnicity and exceptionality, in which white boys are more likely to be suspected of having exceptionalities when they exhibit academic challenges, while boys of color are more likely to be suspected when they exhibit behavioral challenges. This suggests that the racialized construction of exceptionalities reflects differential academic expectations and interpretations of behavior by race/ethnicity, with implications for the subjectivity of exceptionality identification and for the exacerbation of racial/ethnic inequalities in education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)317-334
Number of pages18
JournalSocial Science Research
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science


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