English Learners

One State’s Problems With Identifying ELLs With Disabilities

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 25, 2011 4 min read
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Massachusetts school districts are likely mistakenly identifying some English-language learners as having disabilities when they don’t and also are not adequately serving many of those who are properly identified, a report released today concludes.

The author of the hard-hitting report, Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, a professor of bilingual special education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., reports that the proportion of English-language learners placed in special education increased from 9.8 percent to 14.8 percent in Massachusetts over the last decade. (Nationwide, about 13 percent of all children are identified with having disabilities and experts have always told me that the proportion should be the same for ELLs as non-ELLs.)

The report was released today by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I bring it to your attention because the identification of ELLs with disabilities has proved to be a persistent challenge across the nation. Officials of New York City’s school system, for example, have told me that in the school district’s 2009 demographic report, 22 percent of the city’s ELLs were classified as having a disability.

The office of English-language acquisition of the U.S. Department of Education also sees the identification and education of ELLs with disabilities to be enough of a challenge that it co-hosted a daylong forum on the subject with the Council of the Great City Schools last week in Las Vegas.

Serpa says that the recent dramatic increase of ELLs in special education raises questions about the effectiveness of the ballot measure implemented in 2003 in the state that restricted the use of students’ native languages in schools. She cites research on similar restrictive language policies in Arizona and California that found that when language support for students was decreased, special education placement increased. That same research showed that ELLs in English immersion classes—the default educational approach for ELLs in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—were almost three times as likely to be placed in special education as ELLs who were in bilingual education programs.

The report, however, doesn’t give enough evidence for readers to conclude that the proportion of ELLs with disabilities spiked only after implementation of the language-restrictive policy in 2003. It shows that during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years, that proportion climbed steadily. The ballot measure was passed in November 2002. The proportion also declined from its peak for the decade of 16 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 14.8 percent this school year. The report doesn’t include statistics prior to the 2001-02 school year.

In addition, the report says, the process that many Massachusetts school districts use for identifying ELLs is so fraught with problems that some such children get stuck in the prereferral mode of the evaluation process for years and are never placed in special education when they should be and some others are placed in special education when they don’t have a disability at all but rather are struggling with a language barrier.

Serpa does not just toss out generalizations without backing them up. She carefully explains federal laws protecting the rights of both children who are new to English and children who have disabilities and spells out how Massachusetts schools are not complying with those laws.

For example, she quotes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as saying that assessments should be provided and administered in a child’s “native language or other mode of communication.” She contends that typically school districts use American English, norm-referenced tests to evaluate ELLs that are translated into the native language “on the spot without validation.” She adds, “This procedure is not acceptable. The evaluation of ELLs suspected of a disability should include English-proficiency measures and academic skills measures.”

Also, she points out that two categories of disabilities in which ELLs are overrepresented are “communication impairment” and “intellectual impairment.” Those kinds of disabilities seem particularly vulnerable to misdiagnosis with ELLs, she says. “In other words, the distribution of diagnoses makes it appear likely that some students whose limited-English skills make it hard to keep up with classroom work are being labeled as having disabilities and are being inappropriately assigned to special education programs, when the school itself is failing to meet the student’s educational needs.”

The report contains a number of recommendations to improve processes for identifying and educating ELLs with disabilities, such as that the state should provide additional guidance on interventions, referral, nondiscriminatory assessment and evaluation of ELLs.

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