English Learners and Special Education

  • Guiding Principles
    Students who are learning English may encounter academic challenges in the classroom that resemble the challenges faced by some students with disabilities. And some of the instructional strategies that support English Learners are similar to the strategies that support some students who experience disabilities. However, it is very important to recognize that learning English is not a disability. In fact, students who are developing bilingual skills are creating neural pathways that can lead to powerful future learning opportunities. Bilingualism and biliteracy are assets that will benefit students in their future educational path and in life.
    Some students who are learning English may also experience disabilities, just as some students who are native English speakers may experience disabilities. The spectrum of diverse learners includes monolingual and bilingual students. However, when considering special education evaluation for a student who is learning English as a second language, we must exercise caution. We never want to assign a label of a disability to a student if the true cause of their academic difficulties is acculturation or second language acquisition.
    If students are dual-eligible -- as English learners and students with disabilities -- it is important for the special education case manager and the EL specialist to work closely together to make sure the student is progressing toward language acquisition and IEP goals.
    In all questions of eligibility, our goal is to find the students who should be eligible for special education, to conduct our evaluations in a timely and culturally-sensitive manner, and to use special education as a tool to help eligible students move forward in becoming great thinkers and thoughtful people. English Learners have historically been over-identified for special education - particularly in the area of Communication Disorder. If a student is developing their language skills in two languages at the same time, it is not necessarily a sign of a disability if they are not yet proficient in either. We are committed to eliminating the disproportionate identification of English Learners as students with disabilities.

    Procedural Guidance
    Circles of Support
    Circles of Support (COS) is a process that is intended to help teachers and teacher teams understand an individual student's learning profile. It is not simply a pathway to special education. If concerns arise about the learning of a student who is identified as an English Learner, the Circles of Support team can consider strategies and supports for them. However, the Circles of Support team should proceed with caution.
    Circles of Support team members should ask themselves, "What would we learn from Circles of Support - and what interventions/supports would we provide - that would be different from the strategies/supports that the student receives as part of the English Language Development program?" All areas of inquiry and data collection should be examined through the lens of language acquisition - recognizing that it takes 5-7 years for a student to become fully proficient with academic language in English. Literacy development in L1 can also be impacted for students who are in the early years of literacy development in both languages. This is not necessarily a sign of a disability.
    At the end of the Circles of Support process, the COS team completes the Circles of Support Summary form in ePEP. One of the options is "Factors indicate concerns are due to language and cultural concerns." If this box is selected, the team develops a plan for:
    • increasing intensity of English language development
    • supporting L1 development
    • supporting acculturation
    If the team determines that the concerns are not due to language or cultural concerns, then they can move toward recommending an evaluation for possible disabilities. Lack of proficiency in both L1 and L2 is not necessarily an indicator of a disability.
    It is important for the Circles of Support team to remember that one of the final boxes on the special education eligibility form is "The team has determined that the eligibility is/is not due to limited English proficiency." This means that for the child to be found eligible for special education, the Eligibility team will need to determine that the child's academic struggles are the result of a disability and not the result of learning English.
    One important consideration when evaluating English Learners using standardized cognitive and academic assessments is the norming group. Most standardized assessments in English were not normed for English Learners. So we should be very cautious of decisions based largely on data from these assessments.
    "When a child's general background experiences differ from those of the children on whom the test was standardized, then the use of the norms of that test as an index for evaluating the child's current performance or for predicting future performances may be inappropriate." (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1991).
    There are some methods for reducing bias in traditional testing practices. These come with cautions as well:
    • Modified Methods of Evaluation (may affect standardization )
      • repeating instructions
      • accepting responses in either language
      • modifying time constraints
    • Nonverbal Methods of Evaluation (language-reduced assessment)
      • tests may still be culturally embedded
      • may not adequately evaluate some cognitive processes - including reading and writing
    • Native Language Evaluation (bilingual assessment)
      • tests administered by a bilingual school psychologist
      • not much research yet on this practice - but it is promising
    • Evaluation in English - analysis using C-LIM
      • tests standardized
      • can plot scores on C-LIM matrix to help interpret whether further assessment in L1 is necessary/appropriate

    Using C-LIM for Evaluating English Learners for Special Education (from Dr. Samuel Ortiz)

    • Step 1 - Assessment in English
      • Select appropriate assessments that relate to referral concerns
      • Conduct assessments in standardized manner in English
      • Score tests and plot them on C-LIM
      • If analysis reflects anticipated pattern of scores, it is likely that the student does not have a disability
      • If analysis does not reflect the anticipated pattern of scores, continue with Step 2
    • Step 2 - Bilingual Assessment in L1
      • Use tests that are as parallel as possible to the original English-language assessments
      • Bilingual psychologist administer the test (or use a trained interpreter)
      • Modify/Accommodate as necessary to ensure full comprehension
      • Observe qualitative data (student behavior during testing) in addition to quantitative responses
      • If areas of weakness match areas of weakness from initial English assessment, it is likely that the student has a disability 
    Assessment tools for English Learners
    Data-Based Decision Tools for EL-SPED (a great set of tools developed by EL specialists at the Linn-Benton-Lincoln ESD)
    SOLOM (Student Oral Language Observation Matrix)
    CLIC (Classroom Language Interaction Checklist)
    AQS (Acculturation Quick Screen)
    C-LIM (Culture-Language Interpretive Matrix)
    Research & Articles about SPED and EL
    Separating Difference from Disability - Dr. Catherine Collier (a useful article about the kinds of data we need and how to think about assessment & evaluation for English learners that we suspect may have a disability)

    My school only has 1 or 2 English Learners. Do we have an EL specialist?
    Yes. Every school in the district has someone responsible for EL supports. For some schools with large populations of English Learners, the EL specialist is a full-time or half-time position. For schools with smaller EL populations, the Instructional Coordinator or Assistant Principal often serves as the EL specialist.