In schools, racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately identified as students with mental health challenges. Moreover, identification of emotional disturbance (ED) is related to a number of negative situations: poor academic outcomes, increased risk of contact with the juvenile justice system, and low employment post-high school.

The federal definition of ED contains just five brief criteria–only one of which must be met to reach the designation–and as such, it has been heavily criticized. Nevertheless, there has not been a formal analysis of the reliability of the federal ED criteria, which this study examines through the use of mock special education reports to determine eligibility.

Key Findings

  • Of the 179 school psychologists in the study, 56 found the candidate to reach the ED eligibility criteria.
  • However, these participants reached this determination using a wide range (16 different combinations) of the criteria, which indicated extremely poor levels of reliability and consistency.
  • In short, as this criteria is the foundation for decision making for special education eligibility, the existing criteria must be redefined to improve the consistency of its application.