Missouri Seeks to Aid ELLs Now Overlooked: Those With Disabilities

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 24, 2007 8 min read
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Missouri is grappling with a special education problem that may come as a surprise to educators elsewhere. Far from over-identifying a key group of minority students for such services, the state has found that it’s underserving such a group: English-language learners.

The state is trying to combat a lack of referrals of English-language learners to special education in Missouri, where only 825—or 4 percent—of such students are receiving special education services, compared with 15 percent of all students, according to data from the state education department.

At one time, Missouri likely had a problem with overrepresentation of English-language learners in special education, but as educators realized it’s against federal law to assign children to such classes if they don’t have a disability, “the pendulum swung the other way and got stuck,” said Theresa M. Armentrout, an instructional specialist for migrant education and English-language learners at a regional professional-development center.

Services Denied

The result, she said, is that some English-learners in the state are being denied services because school districts are so reluctant to test them for having a disability. Yet experts in special education say that children with disabilities are best served when the disability is detected and addressed early in a child’s school career.

Veteran Education Week reporter Mary Ann Zehr tackles difficult policy questions, explores learning innovations, and shares stories about different cultural groups on her beat in her blog, Learning the Language.

“English-language learners are wayunderrepresented, and English-as-a-second-language teachers are crying for help: ‘I have this kid and I know he should be able to do more, based on my knowledge of working with the population,’ ” Ms. Armentrout said. She is heading Missouri’s efforts to address the needs of English-learners with disabilities through teacher training and a statewide task force.

On average, overrepresentation in special education—meaning that the proportion of students from a particular subgroup receiving such services is larger than its share of all students—is still more of a problem than underrepresentation for students who are members of racial and ethnic minorities, according to Leonard Baca, a professor of bilingual special education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Underrepresentation occurs “only in certain pockets,” Mr. Baca said, and generally shows up in studies of individual school districts, not analyses of national averages. Native Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos are overrepresented in special education, Mr. Baca noted, while Asian-Americans are underrepresented.

Nationally, 10 percent of English-language learners receive special education, compared with 13 percent of all children enrolled in grades K-12, according to data collected by the office for civil rights of the U.S. Department of Education in the 2004-05 school year.

In Texas, the proportion of English-learners in special education is about the same as for all students, 11 percent, according to state officials, but such a match is not true of many states. In Rhode Island, for example, 11 percent of English-learners are in special education, compared with 19 percent of all students. In California, by contrast, 24 percent of English-learners have been identified as having disabilities, compared with 11 percent of all students.

False Assumptions

Coral Russell of the 4,000-student Carthage, Mo., school district said she was immediately able to put to use what she learned at a workshop she took last spring on how to evaluate English-language learners for special education services.

English-as-a-second-language teacher Coral Russell talks with 3rd graders Leslie Oxlaj, left, and Kevin Guzman before standardized testing at Columbian Elementary School in Carthage, Mo.

One of the students in her ESL classes at Columbian Elementary School qualified for special education last month in part because of some of Ms. Russell’s documentation of the boy’s learning—and lack of learning. The child was the American-born child of Guatemalan immigrants. After kindergarten, she said, “he could not read numbers; he could read only zero and one.”

In Missouri, said Ms. Armentrout, some districts reacted to the complexity of identifying ELL students for special education by setting policies in which they delayed testing for a disability for several years. “There was this assumption students had to fully develop English-language proficiency before they could be tested,” she said. “It was a big urban legend.”

Julie Hammons, an ESL teacher at Milan High School in Milan, Mo., said the training she took last spring with Ms. Armentrout at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., helped her better understand the legal right that English-language learners have to receive a proper evaluation—and what that entails.

Before she took the training, she had taught two students whom she suspected of having disabilities. One—an elementary school student from Mexico—eventually qualified for extra help in reading and mathematics through special education, and “thrived under that program,” she said. The second student, a 7th grader from Mexico, did not qualify for special education, but Ms. Hammons felt that the educators who tested her—during her third year in the school district—didn’t dig deep enough in their evaluation. She had sent them a fat file folder with samples of the student’s work.

“They sent the file folder back to me and said, ‘She is still learning English,’ and that was that,” Ms. Hammons said. “Had it happened today, I would have known more and could throw a fit.”

If she were faced with a similar situation now, she said, she would turn to the packets she received in training about what rights such a student has under federal law. “I’d probably photocopy it and say, ‘Guess what, you have to do something,’ ” she said.

Evaluations Tricky

Indeed, some school districts have been forced to change their practices in evaluating English-language learners because of lawsuits or complaints filed with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights about their practices.

In response to a complaint filed Oct. 26, contending that English-language learners were overrepresented in special education in the 6,700-student Florence Unified School District in Florence, Ariz., the OCR spelled out several pages of procedures on evaluation—and reevaluation—of English-language learners for a disability in an agreement the district signed with that office March 22.

The district volunteered to enter into an agreement with the OCR on how best to serve English-learners. District officials declined to comment on whether the procedures laid out in the agreement represented a big change for the district.

For nearly three decades, the 1.1 million-student New York City district has conducted training for educators on how to properly evaluate English-language learners for special education in response to its losing a lawsuit in federal court in 1979, according to Sara G. Nahari, a former bilingual school psychologist for the district. Ms. Nahari, now an adjunct professor in school psychology at Queens College, conducted some of that training as recently as two years ago.

In the lawsuit, Jose P. v. Board of Education, the mother of a second-language learner was one of a number of parents who contended that their children were denied special education services when they needed them. State and district officials were ordered to make a plan for evaluating students with limited proficiency in English, “including methods for identifying appropriate non-English or bilingual tests and evaluative procedures, to provide for nondiscriminatory and properly validated testing of the educational needs of such students.”

But years after that judgment, school districts across the country are still struggling to figure out what “evaluative procedures” work best for English-language learners.

With English-learners, said Mr. Baca of the University of Colorado, all standard measures for detecting a cognitive or learning disability are invalid.

“You are then forced to do informal assessments or at least look at test scores with caution—and see what you can do to figure this out,” he said. “If a child scores very low on both Spanish- and English-language-proficiency measures, that’s a good sign they have a disability. If they score high on one of them, that’s a sign they don’t have a disability.”

In addition, he said, educators should ask parents about language development among the child’s siblings. If the child is far behind where other siblings were at the same age, he or she might have a disability.

Because identifying English-language learners for special education is complex, and because immigration patterns have changed so that such students are no longer concentrated in just a few states, every state should provide guidance on how to do it, Mr. Baca said. Colorado is one of the few states that have such guidance in place, he said.

California is just now developing guidance on how best to evaluate English-learners for special education. Texas is in the process of updating its guidance on the issue to require stronger representation of educators from both special education and English-language acquisition on each evaluation team.

Ms. Russell of the Carthage, Mo., school district, is a member of the state task force writing recommendations for such procedures. She and the classroom teacher of the 1st grade English-language learner of Guatemalan heritage spent much of this school year trying teaching interventions and tracking how the boy responded.

They gave him language-proficiency tests in both English and Spanish. The results showed he had limited proficiency in English—and even more limited proficiency in Spanish. They also compared his progress with that of another English-learner at about the same grade level with a similar background and culture.

Ms. Russell said she applied what she had learned at her workshop about the importance of parent interviews.

“The father said [his] 3-year-old spoke better Spanish than the boy did. The father had other concerns, such as that the boy doesn’t retain information,” she said.

In the end, the 7-year-old didn’t have any trouble qualifying for special education.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Missouri Seeks to Aid ELLs Now Overlooked: Those With Disabilities

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