Assessing ELLs for Special Education: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 20:15
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

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


As Classrooms Become More Diverse, How Do We Help All Students Grow?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

diverse student populations With the start of a new school year this month, principals and teachers are facing novel and increased challenges. Educators are well aware that the U.S. classroom is becoming more diverse and that this diversity compounds the added pressure teachers and administrators feel to meet Common Core standards and local community standards for educational performance. 

The increased diversity in the U.S. classroom can be attributed to several factors:

  • The recent census indicates that over 20% of our students speak a primary language other than English. In many areas of the country the numbers are much higher than that.
  • The rates of students diagnosed with attentional problems (ADD and ADHD) have increased by 40% in the past decade. The extent to which that increase reflects a true change in prevalence is open to debate. But, for the classroom teacher the challenges these students pose complicate classroom organization and format of content presentation.
  • Despite initiatives like Response to Intervention and the Common Core, reading proficiency remains a problem for many schools districts. Nationwide, 33% of fourth graders still do not read proficiently.
  • Most school districts are opting for “push-in” as an alternative to “pull out” for students with special needs. This mainstream inclusion poses specific challenges to classroom teachers who are not specifically trained to work with special populations like children with language-learning disabilities.
  • The number of students in homes below the poverty line is increasing and, with it, continued learning challenges that are not easily met by changes or adaptations in curriculum.

All of these factors are contributing to an educational environment where teachers and administrators feel increased pressure to meet state guidelines and community expectations yet they are at a loss for approaches that actually increase classroom achievement for these groups. However, there are some commonalities among these diverse groups that make them more amenable to some specific types of interventions than others.

English language learners, struggling readers, special education students, and students from homes below the poverty line share specific kinds of cognitive limitations that have been shown to affect school achievement. A major limitation shared by all of those diverse groups is the reduction in oral language skills. Research published by Hart and Risley in 1995 showed that children living in homes below the poverty line were exposed on average to 32 million fewer words by the time they entered school than children from homes where the parents were professionals. And research published by Hirsch in 1996 indicated that when students enter schools with low oral language the relative difference in oral language skills actually worsens as they course through elementary and middle school. Academic interventions that improve oral language skills are one key to closing the achievement gap.

Some other diverse groups, like those students diagnosed with ADHD or special needs, show problems with attention and working memory skills. As classroom teachers are aware, attention and memory problems are difficult to “teach around” and pose a challenge for classroom management as well. Teachers may feel they spend 95% of their time trying to accommodate the 5% of learners who struggle to attend or cannot easily retain information presented in class. Interventions that focus specifically on enhancing attention and memory skills have been proven to result in increased academic achievement.

It is logical that increased diversity in our nation’s classrooms necessitates a new look at educational interventions that are designed to target the underlying deficits rather than concentrating on curriculum alone. Children with poor oral language skills or reduced attentional or memory capacities are not likely to benefit from even the best instruction until those deficits are addressed. Fortunately, there are powerful, breakthrough interventions like the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs that focus on those specific capacities and they have proven results with this new diverse group of students we are charged with educating.


Communication Champion. (2011). Oral language and poverty. Gross, J. Retrieved from

Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students.Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.

Morris, R.D., Stuebing, K.K., Fletcher, J.M., Shaywitz, S.E., Lyon, G.R., Shankweiler, D.P., Katz, L., Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, B.A. (1998). Subtypes of reading disability: variability around a phonological core. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 347-373.

Related reading:

Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI

Response to Intervention & Special Ed Stats: Progress Report


Response to Intervention and Special Ed Stats: Progress Report

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

special ed stats Dr. Chris Weber is a former teacher and school administrator distinguished by his track record of helping at-risk students achieve. He’s an expert on Response to Intervention (RtI)and has authored several bestselling books on the subject. In his recent webinarfor Scientific Learning, he gives a progress report on RtI, including trends in special educationstatistics to date.

Dr. Weber begins by returning to the question of why we have Response to Intervention at all. In answer, he explains that special ed hasn’t been all that successful in keeping students on track to graduate ready for college or a skilled career. Students with disabilities drop out at twice the rate of their peers, and 80% never learn to read. CLD students (learners who are culturally and linguistically diverse) are over-represented in special ed, for no supportable reason. And, most significant, perhaps, is the fact that very few learners who enter special ed ever exit—only about 3%.

Weber’s criticism is not about how well special ed has performed for students who have profound disabilities, but instead for the very high percentage of students who have a mild to moderate specific learning disability, defined as a disorder in one of the basic processes (reasoning, memory, processing, attention, etc.) underlying a student’s ability to use language, spoken or written, to read, spell, write, or to do mathematical calculations. Often, schools still offer separate courses for special ed learners, an approach that sends a clear message of lower expectations, intentionally or not .He also cites students who are “curriculum casualties”—learners who have not responded to intervention and who are prematurely or wrongly given a disability diagnosis despite the fact that the intervention, or instruction, provided was actually ineffective. 

It’s a moral imperative, says Weber, that we correct this state of affairs. Socioeconomic status and home language should not make a difference, nor should ethnicity or gender. The decisions we make for all students, he says, should be made with the same care and commitment as those we make for our own sons and daughters.

Another, sometimes unacknowledged driver of RtI, says Weber, is the urgency of helping all students develop 21 stcentury skills. RtI is not just for students who we’ve traditionally thought of as underperforming. In some districts, students who are currently meeting state proficiency standards—which in many states, he says, have been set too low—are still not making the year-to-year growth they need in order to graduate ready for college or a skilled career. RtI can be the framework that accelerates learners to competency on the path that follows graduation.

Weber goes on to discuss several additional points:

  • Where did RtI come from?
  • How can we measure RtI’s impacts?
  • What might RtI look like?

He also discusses the tradeoffs that must be made in prioritizing both academic and behavioral skills, as both are essential for success in school and career. Watch the full webinarto get all the details, including special ed stats and data that you may not see elsewhere.

Related reading:

RTI is a Verb

Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI



School Improvement Grant - Intervention for Failing Schools

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 (All day)
  • Joseph Noble, Ph.D

What is the School Improvement Grant?

school improvement grants

“School Improvement Grants…are used to improve student achievement in Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring so as to enable those schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) and exit improvement status.” 

How much money is available?  

FY 2009 School Improvement Grant appropriation: $546 million

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: $3 billion

Total: $3.546 billion

Who is eligible to apply? 

Formula grant states, who make sub-grants to school districts.

What is the timing of the grant? 

Application available: December 3, 2009

Application deadline (for states): February 8, 2010

Awarding and disbursement of School Improvement Grant funds 

“FY 2009 school improvement funds are available for obligation by SEAs and LEAs through September 30, 2011. In its application for these funds, an SEA may request a waiver of the period of availability to permit the SEA and its LEAs to obligate the funds through September 30, 2013.”   (, click on “Application” link and go to page i)

Amount of LEA awards

LEA subgrants can range from $50,000 to $2 million. 

( and

School Improvement Grant Requirements

“The secretary would require states to identify three tiers of schools:

  • Tier I- The lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring in a state, or the five lowest-performing Title I schools, whichever number is greater.
  • Tier II– Equally low-achieving secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds. The secretary proposes targeting some of these extremely low-achieving high schools and their feeder middle schools….
  • Tier III– The remaining Title I schools in improvement, corrective action or restructuring that are not Tier I schools in the state.

[Recent legislation has allowed SEAs to use School Improvement Funds to serve “newly eligible” schools: certain low-achieving schools that are not Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.  For more information, go to:, pages 11-12.]

In its application to the state, each school district would be required to demonstrate its commitment to raising student achievement by implementing, in each Tier I and Tier II school, one of the following rigorous interventions:

  • Turnaround Model– This would include among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.
  • Restart Model– School districts would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization selected through a rigorous review process. A restart school would be required to admit, within the grades it serves, any former student who wishes to attend.
  • School Closure– The district would close a failing school and enroll the students who attended that school in other high-achieving schools in the district.
  • Transformational Model– Districts would address four specific areas: 1) developing teacher and school leader effectiveness, which includes replacing the principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformational model, 2) implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operating flexibility and sustained support.

Districts should choose the strategy that works best for each school. To ensure districts are choosing a variety of strategies, any district with nine or more schools in school improvement will not be allowed to use any single strategy in more than half of its schools.”   (

How do Fast ForWord® and Reading Assistant™ products fit with the School Improvement Grant?

Improve student achievement

To date, students in almost 6,000 schools have achieved improvements in language or reading skills with the Fast ForWord reading intervention softwareproducts. Numerous independent studies as well as detailed research and outcomes data consistently confirm the effectiveness of the products. After using the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistantproducts, students have shown gains in achievement on a variety of standardized tests and state assessments. For example, Fast ForWord participants in Everett Publics Schools in Everett, Massachusetts, made significant gains in reading achievement following Fast ForWord product use during the 2007-2008 school year. Sixty-six percent of the students improved their MCAS Reading scorein 2008 with an average improvement of 4.6 points. Scientific Learning has over 200 school based effectiveness and case reportsdocumenting the substantial gains in achievement made by students after using the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products.

Help Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring so as to enable those schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) and exit improvement status  

With a background of over 30 years of neuroscience researchand over 10 years of school site studies of effectiveness, Scientific Learning’s products have been shown to be proven intervention strategies for all schools, including those that are the lowest performing. The Fast ForWord Language and Fast ForWord Literacy series, with their cutting edge, neuroscience designed adaptivity and acoustically modified and enhanced sound, have been used successfully by students in low-performing schools in order to improve their cognitive, oral language, and reading skills. And both software series provide intensive support in a short period of time, from 4-16 weeks, depending on the scientifically validated protocol used.

Four Models of turning around schools:  

  • Turnaround model: Implementing a new or revised instructional program– Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant fit well as part of a new or revised instructional program to use neuroscience based and proven learning techniques to turn around schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.
  • ReStart Model:Schools closed and re-starting will need scientifically based and proven educational tools like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in order to start anew and provide their struggling students with the cognitive, oral language, and reading skills that they need to succeed in all subject areas.
  • School Closure:Schools assimilating struggling students from closed schools will find that they need intervention products like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in order to help these students achieve grade level proficiency and assure that the school achieves or continues to achieve AYP.
  • Transformational Model: Implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies– Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant fit well as part of or as a supplement to any comprehensive instructional reform strategy, and indeed, the effects of the products are comprehensive, affecting student performance in all subject areas. Extending learning...time- Scientific Learning’s software can be implemented easily during extended hours.
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