English-Language Learners

Report Updates Portrait Of LEP Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 14, 2004 3 min read
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A new federal report documents what some experts on limited-English-proficient students have suspected: Such students are underrepresented in special education.

Historically, some school districts mistook some students’ lack of English skills for a disability and wrongly assigned them to special education classes. Now, experts contend, some districts have become too reluctant to assign English-language learners to special education. Districts may fear being unfair, or may have policies that delay the testing of such students for possible disabilities.

Visit the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition‘s Website.

“The pendulum has swung the other way,” said Delia Pompa, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education. “There’s almost a fear in school districts of not identifying them appropriately, so then they don’t do anything for them.”

The report, “Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students With Disabilities,” was written by Development Associates Inc., of Arlington, Va., and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English- language acquisition.

A summary of the study’s findings was released on the Web site of the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. The full 484-page report, which was sent to Education Week, is expected to be posted on the same site this month.

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Read the accompanying table, “Survey Results.”

Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which is located at the University of Minnesota and provided consultants to the research project, said that the study is the first to provide information about English-language learners with disabilities based on a nationally representative sample of schools. The study’s sample included 1,315 districts and 3,424 schools that each serve at least one English- language learner.

It’s important that the nation now has a research-based estimate on how many English-language learners with disabilities have been identified in schools, according to Ms. Thurlow. The study puts the number at 357,325.

Also, she said, the study provides groundbreaking information in showing that while 13.5 percent of all students receive special education, only 9.2 percent of English-language learners do.

Data that her center collected in its own research on English-language learners with disabilities from a smattering of states had previously showed low number of such students in special education. “It is good to have actual data,” Ms. Thurlow said.

Lack of Training

Leonard M. Baca, a professor of bilingual special education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that the study drove home for him the nation’s need for teachers who are trained to meet both language and special education needs.

“This is an issue that is going to continue to face the school system. We’re unprepared,” Mr. Baca said. A professor in one of the nation’s few master’s programs in bilingual special education, Mr. Baca noted that only Illinois provides a state endorsement for teachers in both bilingual and special education.

The study found that six out of 10 special education teachers who teach at least three students with limited English proficiency had received training related to English-language learners in the past five years.

Mr. Baca observed that the number of English-language learners with disabilities has increased along with the number of English-language learners.

The federal study showed that from 1992 to 2002, the number of students studying English as a new language in U.S. schools increased by 72 percent, while the number of teachers who had at least one such student more than tripled. Nearly 43 percent of all teachers in public schools now teach at least one student with limited proficiency in English, while only 15 percent did in 1992, according to the study.

The study also shows that English-language learners are more likely to receive instruction completely in English than they were a decade ago. In 2002, 59 percent of the nation’s 4 million English-language learners received all of their instruction in English, while in 1992, only 37 percent of such students did so.

The shift was caused only in part by the passage of state ballot measures in California and Arizona that curtailed bilingual education, according to Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He said that the focus in the federal No Child Left Behind Act on research-based reading programs, which are usually English-based, and states’ emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests in English have contributed to the change in instruction for English-language learners.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Report Updates Portrait Of LEP Students


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