English Learners

What We (Don’t) Know About English-Learners and Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — July 22, 2015 2 min read
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English-language learners are one of the nation’s fastest-growing student populations. But when it comes to English-learners who may also have learning disabilities, states and districts are struggling both to identify these children and to steer them to effective programs.

A document released this month from the federal Institute of Education Sciences and written by the Regional Laboratory West at WestEd outlines the challenges facing schools around English-learners and students with disabilities. The document offers examples of what some states are doing around student identification and support of English-learners with disabilities.

But the report—aimed at district and state policymakers—also acknowledges that the research base in this area is thin. Thus, the policies currently in place may not be working all that well. “No proven method exists for identifying an English-learner student who has a learning disability and then placing the student in the most appropriate instructional program,” the report said.

Identifying a student with a learning disability is already a challenging feat, requiring evaluators to tease out effects that may be linked to a learning disorder from struggles that could be tied back to poor instruction or some other problem. Add to that another complex variable—language acquisition—and you end up with “evidence of English-learner students being both over- and underrepresented in special education programs.”

Guiding Principles for ELLs in Special Education

From looking at the policies of 20 states with the highest population of ELLs, the report does offer “guiding principles” that other states might consider in drafting new policies or modifying existing ones.

Have a clear policy statement on giving additional consideration in placing English-learner students in special education programs. This means that English-learners may need different, or additional, assessments other than those used to place English-speakers in special education.

Provide test accommodations for English-learner students. Several states note that students should be provided accommodations based on their status both as a student with a disability and as an English-learner, not one or the other.

Have exit criteria for English-language support programs for English-learner students in special education. Two states, Arizona and Texas, allow districts to exit special education students from language support, even if they’re not yet fluent. New York specifically forbids this, saying English-learners need to receive the same language support until they can meet the standard exit criteria. The remaining 17 states evaluated are silent on this issue.

Use response to intervention methods to assess English-learner students’ language and disability needs. Several states offer resources to teachers on how to use RTI to evaluate an English-learner for a disability.

Publishing extensive, publicly available manuals to aid educators in identifying and supporting English-learner students who have learning disabilities. Three states—Illinois, Minnesota and Virginia—have released policy and “best practice” manuals on this issue.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.