English-Language Learners

Accurate Identification of ELLs With Disabilities Challenges Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 21, 2014 2 min read
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Pinpointing whether an English-language learner’s academic struggles stem just from a lack of proficiency in the language or if there is another issue unrelated to language acquisition is a complex task.

And it’s something that continually vexes educators in school districts.

I was reminded of this important issue today when I read a story in the Boston Herald that cites data from Boston school officials, who told the newspaper that more than 21 percent of their English-language-learner students are also enrolled in special education classes. That’s considerably higher than the Massachusetts average of ELLs with disabilities, which is 16.5 percent, according to the article.

And last year, according to a plan meant to expand the district’s practice of inclusive classrooms for students with disabilities, Boston school officials said that 30 percent of the district’s population of students with disabilities were also ELLs.

Those numbers strike me as being very high and two experts quoted in the Herald piece suggest the same. (That story also focuses on one boy, who is an ELL, but was misidentified as being in need of special education services.) Historically, English-learners have been overrepresented in special education, but, in more recent years, litigation and civil rights complaints have led to an equally troubling problem with identifying too few ELLs with legitimate special education needs, or not providing services to them in a timely manner.

Since 2010, Boston’s school system has been closely monitored by federal civil rights officials in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education for shortcomings in services for English-language learners, including ELLs who also have disabilities. It’s possible that the district has been hypervigilant about not denying services to ELLs who may be in need of special education, leading perhaps to higher numbers of referrals to such services.

I wrote a story in 2012 about the challenges of sorting out when ELLs are also in need of special education and focused in large part on efforts in San Diego Unified, in California. That district had long had a problem of lopsided referrals of English-learners to special education. To address the overidentification, the district created a step-by-step process to make sure every explanation and intervention for a child’s lagging academic performance had been examined before assigning a placement in special education.

The U.S. Department of Education had funded an “exploratory” study on this issue that was to look into the practices of how a half dozen school districts identify ELLs who have special needs. The study was announced two years ago. I’ve been scouring for it, but haven’t turned up any sign that it’s been published yet.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.