Schools Report Progress in Assessing Limited-English-Proficient Students

April 18, 1990 12 min read

By Peter Schmidt

Last year, about 50 Asian students at Philadelphia’s Henry C. Lea Elementary School appeared, on the basis of their behavior or low achievement, to need special education.

Only four actually received it.

The rest, after an intensive process of observation by a special team of teachers, were found to be exhibiting difficulties in linguistic and cultural adjustment that were better addressed by other kinds of intervention.

Those results would have been drastically different just a year earlier, school-district officials say. Under the standardized assessments used at the school until the 1988-89 school year, they estimate, probably 40 of the 50 pupils would have been placed in special education.

Lea Elementary is the site of the district’s Pre-referral Pilot Project for Special Education, a fledgling attempt to monitor in nontraditional ways limited-English-proficient children who previously might have been deemed learning-disabled or emotionally disturbed.

The project grew out of a settlement two years ago of a federal class action that had charged the Philadelphia schools with wrongly placing hundreds of Asian students in special education. (See Education Week, March 9, 1988.)

Experts on the academic assessment and psychological evaluation of children say the pilot effort at Lea Elementary is one of growing number of new programs designed to avoid the mislabeling and misplacement of LEP children.

Like similar initiatives under way in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, the Philadelphia program abandons a reliance on standardized assessments and evaluation procedures designed for English-speaking, American-born children.

Instead, it employs weeks or months of observation to determine if lagging academic achievement or other problems of LEP students may be the result of language barriers, the stress of dealing with a new culture, or, in the case of refugees, short-term reactions to the trauma of war or persecution.

“There aren’t any valid measures for evaluating” LEP pupils for special education, said Cynthia M. Janssen, director of special-education program development for the Philadelphia schools. “The [standardized-assessment] field is not really well-developed as a whole.”

‘Astronomical’ Problems

At a conference held in San Francisco last month by the group Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, experts on evaluation and assessment said the vast majority of school districts need to overhaul their assessment instruments and procedures to more accurately identify the problems and capabilities of LEP students.

Districts are mislabeling thousands of such students, they said, in violation of P.L. 94-142, the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which requires culturally unbiased evaluation and placement of students for special education.

“In dealing with Hispanic students, we are not even coming close to providing the appropriate services,” Alba A. Ortiz, director of bilingual special education at the University of Texas at Austin, asserted in an interview.

“When you get into other groups,” she continued, “the problems are even more astronomical.”

“My sense,” she said, “is that an overwhelming number of LEP students who are called learning-disabled and put in special-education programs are normal, but underachieving, students for whom the system does not have an answer.”

Some 40 to 50 percent of the limited-English-proficient students in special education have been mislabeled, according to an estimate by Ms. Ortiz and Leonard M. Baca, professor of pluralistic studies in education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Bilingual Special Education Interface, a widely used text in the field. Hard data are unavailable, they said, because of difficulties in assessment and a scarcity of relevant research.

Research commonly cited by special educators indicates that 92 percent of all referrals of children for special-education evaluations result in their formal testing; nearly three-quarters of those tested are ultimately placed in special-education settings.

Philadelphia Case

Examples cited in the federal suit filed against the Philadelphia district in December 1985 illustrate what experts see as the inadequacies of traditional assessments when applied to LEP students.

One of the three students named in the suit, a Cambodian refugee whose initials were given as Y.S., had been placed in a special-education class after being classified as mentally retarded on the basis of a test developed for English-speaking students.

Leonard Rieser, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said in a recent interview that the parents of Y.S. were never notified in their native language of his progress or his placement. The suit arising from the boy’s experience documented the cases of several hundred students “who were placed in classes that they simply weren’t able to understand,” Mr. Rieser said.

In the settlement negotiated in 1988, the district agreed to review the placement of all Asian LEP. students in regular and special-education classes.

According to Ms. Janssen, the district special-education official, the pilot program at heavily Asian Lea Elementary School takes each Asian student who appears to need evaluation for special education and refers his case to a team of two itinerant teachers--one of English as a second language and the other of special education.

This “pre-referral” team consults with the child’s parents and teachers and observes his behavior and progress over time in esl and other subjects. If the student’s difficulties appear to be caused, for example, by language and adjustment problems, the team tries various forms of intervention, such as tutoring or counseling.

The process is open-ended, and a team is expected to have tried alternative approaches before recommending that a pupil be placed in special education.

The project is planned for implementation at two other district schools next year.

Initiatives Elsewhere

Specialists in the field say that California and several big-city districts have been especially active in the move toward more appropriate assessments of LEP children. Among other developments:

  • Michele L. Sanchez-Boyce, a consultant to the special-education division of the California Department of Public Instruction, said school districts there are being required by the state to develop pre-referral intervention programs and other alternatives to standardized assessment.

That mandate, she said, stems from the 1979 federal-court decision in Larry P. v. Riles, which prohibited the use of i.q. tests to assess black children on the grounds that such tests are culturally biased. The ruling has been interpreted by the state education department as applying to all minority children.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, in an approach similar to Philadelphia’s, is using study teams to observe LEP children who have learning problems, and to devise ways of helping them in mainstream classrooms.

  • In the New York City school system, a revised version of the standard form used to refer children to evaluation for special education requires that teachers investigate the educational, language, and cultural backgrounds of LEP students and attempt other types of intervention before making such referrals. The form will be used beginning in September, according to a spokesman for Eddie Bayardelle, executive di8rector of the district’s division of special education.

In addition, a task force established last fall is investigating the appropriateness of various testing instruments now being used to assess LEP students in the district.

The inappropriate referral and placement of New York’s LEP students is “a major concern,” the spokesman said. He noted that a report last year by the division of special education found that, during the 1988-1989 school year, disproportionate numbers of such pupils were being placed in special education in certain areas of the city.

  • In the Chicago school system, officials there said, a program being implemented by special teams this year inventories the educational and family background, social skills, English and native-language ability, and overall academic performance of LEP students to determine if they should be evaluated for special education in English or their native languages.
  • And in the District of Columbia schools, illiterate LEP students who appear to be candidates for special education are being taught literacy skills in their native languages so that they can be evaluated more accurately in those languages, according to school officials.

‘Intuitive’ Evaluation

The de-emphasis of standardized assessments that characterizes most of these initiatives has stemmed largely from necessity, according to educators familiar with the new programs.

They note that, given situations such as that faced by the Dade County, Fla., schools, which serve more than 75,000 foreign-born children from some 120 nations, few educators want to take on the daunting task of adapting standardized evaluation instruments and procedures to every language represented.

Moreover, due to the smallness of the potential markets involved, few publishers have adapted standardized assessments to even the largest language minorities.

“They have been improving on these instruments in the last 10 years, but the solution is not there,” said Mr. Baca of the University of Colorado.

“The solution is in moving away from a norm-based model,” he added, expressing what appears to be an emerging consensus in the field that evaluators of LEP children be allowed a more active and “intuitive” role in reaching decisions about placement.

Mai Dao, a native of Vietnam who coordinates a San Jose State University program focusing on bilingual education for Vietnamese elementary-school students, presented a study at the tesol conference contrasting the established assessment practices with the new alternatives.

The older practices, she noted, typically use single, normative instruments--applied once or infrequently and focusing on acquired knowledge--to derive quantitative data that are then used to predict the long-term outlook for students’ achievement and psychological adjustment.

The new strategies, Ms. Dao said, tend to use multiple, non-normative procedures--applied over time and focusing on observed learning--to derive qualitative data that are used to predict short-term achievement and interpret troublesome behaviors.

In another presentation at the conference, Ms. Ortiz of the University of Texas identified two new procedures as especially promising: “dynamic assessment,” which follows the progress of a child over a lengthy cycle of instruction and testing to gain insights into how he learns, and “curriculum-based assessment,” which examines student performance on the various tests given in the course of regular classes.

Most districts with pre-referral intervention procedures, experts at the meeting said, try to avoid inappropriate placements by using a lengthy, step-by-step process that checks the teacher and the curriculum for any ineffectiveness or bias; observes the child, accounting for his background, language proficiency, culture, learning style, and self-concept; consults with parents and community resources; and attempts to resolve problems through tutoring, Chapter 1 compensatory-education services, and other alternatives to special education.

The Council for Exceptional Children has incorporated several pre-referral intervention procedures into Multisystem, an introductory training package for educators who serve culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional children. The package focuses on four areas: specialized informal assessment, culturally and linguistically appropriate programming, strategies for involving language-minority parents, and the provision of school-based support and consultation.

Misinterpreted Behavior

The pre-referral approach, supporters of such methods argue, helps teachers avoid common pitfalls in trying to understand the behavior of LEP children.

Elba Maldonado-Colon, coordinator of the Hispanic bilingual-special-education program at San Jose State, has examined a checklist of about 100 behaviors by which students are often identified as learning-disabled or emotionally disturbed. She found that more than half of the behaviors listed were also typical of children learning a second language or undergoing a cultural transition.

Such characteristics, she said, include: short attention span, daydreaming, disorganization, confusion, anxiousness, shyness, poor self-confidence, uncooperativeness, avoidance of competition, excessive dependence on adults, apathy, defiance, inconsistent academic performance, and poor recall.

The mores of LEP students’ native cultures also make their behavior and attitudes susceptible to misinterpretation.

Southeast Asian students, for example, often come from cultures that stress passive learning and behavior, Ms. Dao said. Accustomed to respecting teachers and having discipline imposed on them by their schools and families, she said, these children often do not participate in discussions, tend to wait for teacher directives instead of taking the initiative, and lack many of the skills needed for questioning and problem-solving.

Deirdre P. Semoff, a counselor and coordinator of learning-disability services at the University of California at Berkeley, said a variety of linguistic factors also can lead LEP students to be misidentified as learning-disabled.

Many Asian children, she noted, tend to omit the endings of English words. They run the risk of being classified as dysphasic unless their assessors are aware that many Asian languages leave out word endings.

And reversing the order of words or letters, common among those learning a new alphabet and syntax, can lead to a misdiagnosis of dyslexia, she warned.

Shortage of Specialists

The future development and adoption of alternative assessment and evaluation measures could be hampered by inadequate funding and a shortage of the specialists best qualified to lead such efforts.

At a national forum for district superintendents and personnel administrators held in January by the U.S. Education Department’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, participants described a critical need for bilingual psychologists, physical therapists, special-education teachers, and speech pathologists.

And the Association for School, College, and University Staffing lists special education, bilingual education, and English as a second language as the fields of education in which qualified personnel are in shortest supply.

Mr. Baca said the only way that most districts can address the need for money and personnel is to resolve the “turf issues” that divide many administrators of regular education, special education, bilingual education, and Chapter 1 programs, thus enabling those programs to pool their resources.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 1990 edition of Education Week as Schools Report Progress in Assessing Limited-English-Proficient Students