Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Identifying and supporting English learner students with learning disabilities
No single method has proven effective in differentiating between English learner students who have difficulty acquiring language skills and those who have learning disabilities. As a result, schools, districts, and states struggle with this issue. Misidentifed students can end up in classrooms or programs mismatched to their needs, which could hamper their educational achievement.
Research describes key elements of processes that can help identify and suggest appropriate services for English learner students with learning disabilities, and some states incorporate these elements into operational procedures, guidelines, and protocols.
This study describes these key elements to inform policymakers interested in developing more effective procedures for identifying, assessing, and supporting English learner students who may have learning disabilities. The research literature suggests that answers to the following questions can help determine whether an English learner student’s academic difficulties are caused by a learning disability or by struggles with second-language acquisition or some other factor:
• Is the student receiving instruction of sufficient quality to enable him or her to make the accepted levels of academic progress? • How does the student’s progress in hearing, speaking, reading, and writing English as a second language compare with the expected rate of progress for his or her age and initial level of English proficiency?
• To what extent are behaviors that might otherwise indicate a learning disability considered to be normal for the child’s cultural background or to be part of the process of U.S. acculturation?
• How might additional factors—including socioeconomic status, previous education experience, fluency in his or her first language, attitude toward school, attitude toward learning English, and personality attributes—impact the student’s academic progress?
According to the literature, a structured process designed to answer these questions using key data is likely to be the most effective approach to discovering whether an English learner student may have a learning disability. The research literature discusses several types of data—including standardized test scores, classroom observations and other nontest data, and parental input—as useful in determining the sources of an English learner student’s academic difficulties. Because each data type has limitations, the literature recommends using multiple types of data.
In research across schools, districts, and states, two factors have been identified that lead to inconsistent identification of students who may have learning disabilities: a lack of understanding among teachers about why English learner students are not making adequate progress, and poorly designed and implemented referral processes. The following actions are thought to effectively address these factors:
• Providing professional development for educators.
• Using pre-referral strategies, such as the response to intervention approach.
• Involving parents.
• Considering multiple forms of data.
• Developing clear policy guidelines and data-tracking systems.
In early 2015 the study team also reviewed state guidelines and protocols from the 20 states with the largest populations of English learner students. From these, five guiding principles suggest ways to identify and recommend assistance for English learner students with possible learning disabilities:
• Having a clear policy statement that additional considerations will be used in placing English learner students in special education programs.
• Providing test accommodations for English learner students.
• Having exit criteria for English language support programs for English learner students in special education.
• Assessing English learner students’ language and disability needs using a response to intervention approach.
• Publishing extensive, publicly available manuals to aid educators in identifying and supporting English learner students who have learning disabilities.