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Education Department to Study ELLs with Disabilities

Challenges related to identifying English-language learners who have disabilities and providing appropriate services for them are about to become the subject of a U.S. Department of Education "exploratory" study.

The Education Department has selected six school districts (names not to be revealed) to focus on as case studies in an effort to understand how educators figure out which ELLs need special education services and how they go about delivering those services to them. Using surveys and interviews, researchers will gather information from each of the districts and use their findings to plan a nationally representative study of ELLs with disabilities.

In its description of the study, the education department says it will visit the six districts for four or five days to conduct interviews with educators and ask questions about the instruments used to assess and identify ELLs for special education, which personnel are involved in that process, patterns of identification, and practices related to how ELLs with disabilities are moved out of language programs. The study is intended to be descriptive of what goes on in those districts and will not be an evaluation of practices.

This issue has been a vexing one for school districts, where at times, English-language learners have tended to be over-represented in special education. Two years ago, the department released a similar study that examined the practices in three New York school districts. In that study, researchers found that district officials think teachers tend to be too quick to refer ELLs to special education, while teachers believe district leaders often wait too long to make a referral.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights and advocacy group for Latino communities, has tracked this issue for more than a decade. Jim Ferg-Cadima, regional counsel for MALDEF in its Washington office, said that over-representation is not the only "proportionality issue" for ELLs in special education. ELLs are often under-represented, he said, when educators tend to attribute learning challenges exclusively to language acquisition. ELLs are also more likely to experience delayed identification for special education services than non-ELLs, he said.

He said the department does have some history of looking at this issue. In 2001, in a report to Congress, the department's office for civil rights noted that fewer ELLs were receiving special education services than their proportion of overall public school enrollment would suggest. And in 2003, the department released a study that found more extensive disproportional representation of ELLs in special education.

Developing the right assessment for identifying ELLs in need of special education services is at the heart of the problem, he said.

Ferg-Cadima said despite the abundance of research on English-learners and students with disabilities separately, there is great unmet need for research on students who fall into both categories.

Until Friday of this week, the department is seeking comment from the field on the exploratory study. You can read more about the study on the department's website (make sure you click on the attachments link to get to the details), as well as find information about how to share your feedback.

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