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Study Explores How Best to Identify ELLs With Disabilities

School district officials think teachers tend to be too quick to refer English-language learners to special education, while teachers think school district officials tend to wait too long to make a referral, according to a federal study of special education referral practices in three New York suburban school districts.

How to determine if an ELL has a disability has been a hot topic in education for at least half a decade, and this difficult challenge is not going away. An article I wrote this year about how the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California applies "response to intervention," or RTI, to English-learners attracted more readers online than I recall any other article I've written about ELLs ever receiving. RTI is an approach to providing interventions to students in an effort to reduce referrals to special education.

The study of three school districts names five components of identification that are important in ensuring that ELLs aren't mistakenly identified as having disabilities. They are adequate professional knowledge, effective instruction, valid assessments and interventions, collaboration between departments in a district, and clear policies. The study also spells out eight challenges that the three New York districts faced in making determinations on whether students had a language problem or disability. Among those challenges are differing views among educators about the timing for referral of ELLs.

I've visited school districts where teachers confessed to me that it seemed nearly impossible to convince school district administrators that an ELL needed special education because the administrators were so worried about making a mistake. Historically, many ELLs were overrepresented in special education, and no one wants to repeat that part of history. But at the same time, school districts need to ensure that English-language learners are not hindered from getting special education services when they need them.

Through the case studies of three districts, the study presents a lot of questions that other districts can use to take an audit of their own practices. The study was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands. That particular laboratory is administered by the Education Development Center, Inc.

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