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



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

Thursday, September 22, 2011 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen


Educators and families who are looking for appropriate learning interventions for students often turn to The Instructional Intervention Tools Chart from the National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI).  Now, the Fast ForWord® Language serieshas been added to the chart, with the NCRTI evaluations of research on the series supporting the claim that the products have high-quality studies, demonstrating their effectiveness when used for Response to Intervention (RtI).

The effectiveness of the Fast ForWord Language series is evident from the “ effect size” found by the NCRTI. Effect size is a statistical way to measure the magnitude of the effect of an intervention.  Of the three studies on the Fast ForWord Language series that have been evaluated by the NCRTI, one showed a medium effect size and the other two showed a large effect size. In fact, two of the three Scientific Learning studies were ranked as having the highest scores in effect size, showing that the Fast ForWord Language Series had the greatest impact and the largest positive effect of any intervention listed by the NCRTI.  These evaluations of research on the Fast ForWord Language series validate the quality of the studies behind the products, demonstrating their effectiveness when used for RtI.

The impact identified in the NCRTI evaluations holds up in real-world implementations, as well.  For example, one district used the Fast ForWord program as its only intervention for kindergarteners during the 2009-2010 school year, to see what kind of difference the program could make when used as the sole intervention for participating students.  Westerly Public Schools in southern Rhode Island identified kindergarten students who scored at the deficient or very deficient levels in letter sound fluency and letter naming fluency on the AIMSweb benchmark, and placed these students into the Fast ForWord program, with no other interventions.

After using the Fast ForWord program, test scores for the participating students rose substantially, and many were able to move off of the personal literacy plans they had been placed on as struggling elementary students.  Because only the Fast ForWord program was used, the district was able to determine that these effects were due to the students’ participation in the program.  And because the students didn’t need as many interventions, the district also saved money.

The NCRTI is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The center partners with researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kansas to build the capacity of states to assist districts in implementing proven models for RTI.

Visit see Scientific Learning’s listings on the NCRTI’s “Instructional Intervention Tools Chart.”

Watch the video on “effect size” and the NCRTI evaluation of the Fast ForWord Language series products.

Related Reading:

Results from a “Gold Standard Study” Show Significant Student Gains in Language and Literacy Skills

Intensive Intervention Tier 3: What Leads to the Need?

Intensive Intervention Tier 3: What leads to the need?

Thursday, January 20, 2011 (All day)
  • Terri Zezula

Intensive intervention tier 3

To start talking about intensive intervention tier 3 in the Response to Intervention Model, I want to start by asking you a simple question:

Are you having chicken for dinner tonight?

You probably can’t fathom how fast your brain arrived at the yes or no conclusion that popped into your head. And yet, to process that one sentence, your brain had to think through seven words, eleven syllables, 19 to 21 phonemes, 35 letters and three distinct “e” sounds. And your amazing brain did all that, sequencing the concepts, drawing on your memory and formulating an answer, in fractions of a second.

The reason your brain was able to perform such an incredible feat is because you have the foundational knowledge -- and the countless neurons in place and linked up in your brain -- to process that information. Those connections are the result of years of language acquisition and learning, the majority of which happened when you were less than four years old.

We are born with the natural ability to acquire language and speech; it is the first test of our brain’s capacity to learn. When we speak and read to infants and young children, we are helping to establish that linguistic foundation, teach speech, develop vocabulary and impart those essential skills. Reading is a different story. Written language must be taught and learned; that’s why we focus on reading skills so heavily in preschool and kindergarten.

But what happens when children don’t get that essential exposure to language early on? What if a child experiences chronic ear infections in his first four years? What if her parents work long hours and don’t read to her often? What if a child does not receive that essential early language stimulation?

Early language developmentis the precursor for reading; without that indispensable input, a child’s brain literally does not learn how to process input correctly. Consider that by the time she is four years old, on average, the child of a professional family has absorbed over three times the number of words as a child of a family of low socioeconomic status. Often, it is these children who end up without the prerequisite language skills and more often than not become struggling readers-- those requiring those tier 3 interventions -- all because of their language foundations.

The great news is that these students DO NOT have to end up out of the mainstream, using valuable tier 3 resources. In the average class, 1 to 5 percent of students do not progress adequately and need intensive interventions. Still, 40 percent of those students who are identified with learning disabilities are simply having trouble reading. If we can bring those students back into the mainstream with proven, scientifically-based brain fitness exercises, we can give them more promising futures as well as free up tier 3 interventions for those students who truly need them.

To learn more about the neurological science behind why these deficits occur in the brain, as well as how we can remedy them, I encourage you to gather your team together over a lunch and watch the webinar, RtI Tier 3 Intensive Interventions: A Neuroscience Perspective. Delivered by Dr. Sherry Francis, it offers fantastic insights to enlighten how we think about these students and their needs and abilities, as well as concrete solutions to help them achieve success.

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