Aug 19, 2014 by Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
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Assessing ELLs for special educationWhen educating English language learners who seem to be struggling, how do you know when it’s time to think about a special education referral? How can you be sure you are assessing ELLs fairly, not mixing up linguistic and cultural diversity with cognitive ability and intellectual functioning? Clearly, it’s not easy – as evidenced by the widespread overrepresentation of ELLs in special education.

Consider this: not long ago, Latino ELLs in San Diego USD were 70% more likely to receive a special education referral than Latino learners who were not English learners. ELLs were also identified for special education earlier, on average, than non-ELLs and tended to wind up in more restrictive settings.

But that was before districtwide reforms instituted a “pre-referral process” – essentially a well-implemented RTI program – to exhaust other possibilities before considering special education referral for English learners. Avoiding common pitfalls can help schools and districts achieve a more fair and accurate identification of ELLs with special needs:

  1. Overlooking the “silent phase” of language acquisition.

When students acquire a new language, they typically go through a silent period while learning basic vocabulary and syntax rules. Behaviors like listening, pointing, choosing, and matching – in the absence of English speaking – may signal that a learner is still getting comfortable with language foundations.

The silent period tends to decrease with age, lasting for weeks to months in older learners and for as much as a year or more in preschool age students. Understanding typical timeframes for the silent phase of language acquisition may help educators to better understand the trajectory students follow as they progress in a new language and have a stronger sense how long might be too long, suggesting the possibility of additional learning challenges.     

  1. Discounting extrinsic factors.

Before assessing a student for special education, educators need to consider other factors that might be at play. Is the student receiving enough parental support? Are there gaps in attendance, and why? Are there family issues such as health problems or a history of frequent moves? Historically, has the student had access to effective instruction?

Has the student received quality research-based interventions, and how well has he responded? Taking a look at progress monitoring data should yield important insights that can result in a special education referral or in providing additional language support for the student.

Experts recommend that educators create a 360-degree view of factors affecting students by collecting medical and developmental histories and conducting classroom observations in addition to interviewing parents, teachers, and the student.

  1. Dropping the ball on general education interventions.

San Diego USD made significant progress in fair and accurate identification by escalating general education interventions according to a step-by-step process throughout the district. By exhausting intervention options first, the district prevented premature referrals.

Implementing a districtwide procedure for carefully screening students and delivering instructional and behavioral interventions can be part of every district’s RTI process.

  1. Not assessing students in their primary language.

Imagine taking a test that evaluates your ability and lacking proficiency in the testing language. It’s a scary thought. How does the evaluator distinguish your degree of knowledge and competence from your ability to understand and respond to the questions being asked? IDEA 2004 recognizes the challenge and calls for special education assessments to be conducted in a student’s primary language.

Experts agree that testing in a student’s first language is an important part of the assessment process, but not everyone agrees that it is sufficient. For one thing, there may not always be appropriate testing instruments available (e.g., recommended assessments might include Communication, Cognitive, Academic, Social-Emotional Behavior, and Adaptive Functioning). In addition, some experts argue that cultural factors play a greater role than assessment language in the misidentification of students for special education.

  1. Ignoring cultural differences.

When working with students from unfamiliar cultures, it can be hard to recognize the cultural factors that can influence a student’s approach to education. Do gender roles play a part in a student’s participation or investment in her education, or affect the degree of parental support for the student? Does the student “go with the flow” instead of raising his hand when he needs help because he comes from a culture that puts the group before the individual? Is there a cultural perception of time as more open and flexible that might be a barrier to attendance or meeting assignment deadlines? When cultural differences are ignored, academic performance may be mismeasured as a result.

Best Practices

Experts recommend a broad approach to assessing students for special education, including collecting information from a wide range of sources so the result of the assessment team’s integration and interpretation can be as unbiased as possible. Language background counts. Cultural background counts. Response to intervention counts. Include them all.

Educators should also be aware that over-representation is not the only risk to ELLs. Some studies indicate that under-representation can also be an issue – typically in areas with higher proportions of ELLs. Being aware of the patterns in their schools can help teachers and assessment teams avoid similar pitfalls. Are English learners represented in special education at about the same rate as other populations? If the proportion of ELLs is higher or lower, everyone involved in the assessment and referral process can be advised to stay alert to possible oversights. Implementing nondiscriminatory evaluation of academic progress by ELLs can go a long way toward solving both problems.

For further reading:

Culturally Competent Assessment of English Language Learners for Special Education Services

The ELL Companion to Reducing Bias in Special Education Evaluation

Cultural Factors That Influence Learning for ELL Students