Evaluating English-Learners for Special Education Is a Challenge. Here's Help
Schools often have trouble identifying English-language learners with learning disabilities—and most states don't offer formal guidance to help educators diagnose and support the students.
A report from the National Center on Educational Outcomes found that just nine states have publicly available manuals designed to help educators. That's despite a 2016 recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education that states should produce clear policies and guidance to help schools distinguish between English-learners who struggle with the language and those who have learning disabilities.
Drawing that distinction is key because English-learners with disabilities who are not actually identified may not be able to access important services. English-learners who are misidentified as having learning disabilities may have less exposure to content that develops their language and higher-order thinking skills. Research has shown that English-learners with disabilities achieve higher academic performance and linguistic development when exposed to both languages.
The report author, WestEd senior research associate Elizabeth Burr, interviewed several of the manuals writers, culling tips on how to develop and promote the manuals, train teachers and avoid roadblocks that can slow down the implementation process.
In their interviews, the manual writers shared stories of educators confused, and sometimes clueless, about the educational rights of both English-learners and students with disabilities. In Michigan, officials found educators in several districts who said they were not aware that schools must identify and evaluate children that they suspect may have a disability. In Minnesota, special education consultant Elizabeth Watkins came across educators who mistakenly assumed there was a mandatory three-year waiting period before English-learners could be referred to special education services.
That confusion among educators could be problematic for English-learners' families, especially those who may not know that their children can qualify for special education services or even understand how schools define learning disabilities.
"The concept of [a] learning disability does not exist in many cultures," Watkins told Burr. "I think that's a helpful perspective for licensed staff—English-speaking staff—to think about."
Another government research lab, the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands, produced a guide that could help bridge that gap of understanding. The two-page document offers a series of recommendations on how to determine whether a student's struggles stem from their limited English-language proficiency or a learning disability. The suggestions include:
- Establishing relationships with parents, bilingual education and special education teachers, speech pathologists, trained interpreters and others to help identify a student's needs.
- Using data from sources such as attendance records, classroom observations—and standardized test and school assessment results that focus on knowledge and skills, not just English proficiency.
- Consider students' skills in English and their native languages and create classrooms that value their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Federal data indicates that about 15 percent of English-learners are identified as having learning disabilities.
Here's a look at the report on developing guidance manuals to support English-learners with learning disabilities and the tip sheet for identifying the students:
Image Credit: Speech-language pathologist Timothy Tipton, left, trains San Diego educators, with the use of a projector, on new techniques for identifying students in need of special education. Experts hope the new process will help reduce lopsided referral rates of English-learners to special education. --Sandy Huffaker/Education Week