Finally some help from the feds on ELL with disabilities

Finally some help from the feds on ELL with disabilities

(District of Columbia) A federal survey of best practices among states with the highest populations of English language learners shows a need for policies that help educators accurately recognize learning disabilities in order to curb misidentification.

The study, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the Regional Educational Laboratory at WestEd, surveys the policies – or lack thereof – for the 20 states with the highest populations of English learners.

The intent is to provide administrators new methods for identifying and supporting English learners with learning disabilities.

“(It is difficult) to determine whether a student’s academic difficulties are caused by a learning disability or struggles with second-language acquisition, a combination of these two factors, or some other issue,” authors Elizabeth Burr, Eric Haas and Karen Ferriere of WestEd wrote in the report.

“Misidentified students can end up in classrooms or programs mismatched to their needs, which could hamper their educational achievement,” they said.

The special education system in many schools is plagued by over- or under-representation of different ethnic groups or genders. Yet schools have generally received little guidance on the issue of identifying and properly addressing the needs of English learners in special education, and factors such as basic cultural differences are often overlooked in assessing these students.

Experts in special education say the report is the closest thing to federal guidance that policymakers have received regarding classifications of English learners with learning disabilities.

According to the survey, there are two common factors that lead to misidentification of students with learning disabilities: a lack of understanding among educators as to why an English learning student is not making adequate progress, and poorly designed and implemented referral processes.

Even in the 20 states with the highest populations of English learners, authors found very few had comprehensive policies in place regarding diagnosis and how to address English learner learning disabilities. The states surveyed include California, Illinois, Texas, Florida and New York.

“It appears that most state and local education agencies will need to make extensive changes to their current policies and practices if they are to implement the research recommendations,” the authors wrote.

Five guiding principles were derived from surveying the states, but not a single one was followed by all 20 of them. The most common principle was to provide testing accommodations for English learners; 14 of the 20 states reported doing so.

Thirteen of the 20 states, including New Mexico, California and Michigan, do provide schools with guidance, and have formal policy statements giving additional consideration to placing English learners in special education programs.

Only two of the states surveyed – Arizona and Texas – have exit criteria for English language support programs for English learners also in special education. This means that in most states, English learners in special education are subject to the same program exit or reclassification criteria as their peers in general education.

Four of the states use response intervention methods to differentiate between language acquisition issues and a possible learning disability, and three publish extensive manuals for educators to aid in the identification and support of English learners with disabilities.

Research has shown for more than a decade that many local education agencies, despite growth in the English learner student population, have not had policies in place for collaboration between English learner and special education programs.

The lack of formal policies has led to inconsistent identification of learning disabilities in English learners. One study cited in the report found that districts with 99 or fewer English learner students had higher rates of identification of English learner students with disabilities than did districts with 100 or more.

Areas of professional development addressing how a student’s cultural background may influence behavior, the typical and atypical language and literacy characteristics of English learner students, or how best to communicate and interact with parents can all aid in improving teacher understanding, according to the study.

In addition to varied professional development strategies and creating formal policies for referral to special education, the study also recommends expanding parent engagement, using multiple forms of data to help determine if a student has a learning disability, and development of data-tracking systems.

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