Equity or Marginalization?: The High School Course-Taking of Students Labeled With a Learning Disability

Issue/Topic: Equity; High School--College Readiness
Author(s): Shifrer, Dara; Callahan, Rebecca; Muller, Chandra
Organization(s): Rice University; University of Texas
Publication: American Educational Research Journal
Published On: 2013

Educational stratification and differences in opportunities to learn are apparent though course-taking during high school with consequences throughout the life course. While research has looked at inequity in high school course-taking for students of color, students of low socioeconomic status, first generation college goers, and by gender, little attention has been paid to students labeled with learning disabilities.

To investigate whether students labeled with learning disabilities complete fewer academic courses by the end of high school compared to their peers who are not labeled, when both cohorts have similar backround characteristics, early high school experiences, achievement, attitudes, and behaviors


  • Findings suggest that students labeled with a learning disablity (LD) have considerably poorer course-taking outcomes than students who are not labeled with disability but are otherwise similar.
  • Results are consistent with the hypothesis that the LD label itself defines a status group that limits educational opportunities, possibly through stigma or other marginalizing processes.
  • Supplemental analyses indicate no statistically significant differences in course-taking outcomes between Whites, African Americans, or Latinos labeled with an LD. Findings reported apply equally well to students of color.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • Differences that remain in the course-taking of students labeled with an LD compared to their peers present the possibility that high school processes may compound the disadvantages of students labeled with an LD.
  • Besides their importance for education policy related to the education of students labeled with an LD, questions posed also have the potential to inform the literature focused on how schools process students in general.
  • Education policy reform - higher levels of standardization and accountability - could improve the high school course-taking of students labeled with an LD.
  • Future research should seek to identify specific school and student-based mechanisms that may contribute to poorer course-taking outcomes among students labeled with an LD, with an eye to policy levers that can ameliorate the negative effects of labeling while still providing students with beneficial accommodations.

Research Design:
The study estimates the specific impact of learning disability labels by comparing course selection of LD and non-LD students; and uses multivariate analyses to determine whether differences persist after accounting for socio-economic backgrounds, academic histories, and early high school experiences.

10,670 spring-term 10th graders in 540 public schools surveyed in the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002

Year data is from:
2002 and 2004


Data Collection and Analysis:
National, student-level data are used that include measures of the disability label; sociodemographic backround; early high school attitudes, behaviors, and achievement; and course taking. Then comparisons are made between labeled and nonlabeled students that are comparable by those measures.


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