Dual Language Learners and English Learners with Disabilities1
Dual language learners (DLLs) and English learners (ELs) who have been identified as having disabilities constitute a relatively small and understudied portion of the K-12 population.2 They make up about 9 percent of the DLL/EL population and 8 percent of students with disabilities, yet these small percentages represent more than 350,000 children (Abedi, 2014). In 2013, 339,000 infants and toddlers (ages birth to 2 years), more than 745,000 children ages 3-5, and 5.8 million children and youth ages 6-21 were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). However, DLLs/ELs with disabilities have received less attention from researchers than other children and youth with disabilities. Much of the research on DLLs/ELs with disabilities is descriptive and fairly recent, and the number of studies varies across disability categories. Given the rapid growth in the number of DLLs/ELs in schools, the large proportion of these children and youth with low academic achievement, and the prevalence of specific learn-
1 This chapter includes content drawn from two papers commissioned by the committee: “Language Development of Dual Language Learner/English Learner Children with Disabilities” by Julie Esparza Brown and “English Learner Students with Disabilities: Issues of Policy and Practice” by Soyoung Park.
2 When referring to young children ages birth to 5 in their homes, communities, or early care and education programs, this report uses the term “dual language learners” or “DLLs.” When referring to children ages 5 and older in the pre-K to grade 12 education system, the term “English learners” or “ELs” is used. When referring to the broader group of children and adolescents ages birth to 21, the term “DLLs/ELs” is used. (See Box 1-1 in Chapter 1 for details.)
ing and language disabilities (about half of the population with disabilities in the United States), research on this topic is consequential and timely.
This chapter presents a critical review of the research on DLLs/ELs with disabilities through the lens of policy, practice, and research. In particular, it focuses on five of the major disability categories—specific learning disabilities (SLDs), intellectual disabilities (IDs), emotional/behavioral disorders (E/BDs), language impairments (LI, including speech/language impairments), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The presentation of these disability categories is intended to serve as a frame for thinking about implications for policy, practice, and research.
The chapter begins with a brief description of the different disabilities and some of the myths associated with DLLs/ELs with disabilities. This review sets the context for the remainder of the chapter, which first focuses on what policy makers and educators need to know about DLLs/ELs with disabilities. This section includes a discussion of IDEA and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), emphasizing the impact of these national policies on DLL/ELs with disabilities, including disproportionate representation, assessment and identification, instruction and services, and policies on reclassification. Next, the chapter examines what educators need to know about the existing identification and evaluation practices for DLLs/ELs with disabilities, focusing on both the multipronged approach and the response to intervention approach. This is followed by an overview of the relevant research for the different disabilities, with a focus on identification, assessment, and instruction. The chapter ends with conclusions drawn from the evidence reviewed.
OVERVIEW OF FIVE MAJOR DISABILITY CATEGORIES IN DLLS/ELS
Table 10-1 provides an overview of the defining characteristics of each of the five disability categories cited above, including identification and assessment, as well as issues associated with instruction and outcomes. The table highlights some of the broad-level outcomes that have been found for each of the specific disabilities, if possible. Box 10-1 provides an overview of the prevalence of disabilities and comorbidities in DLLs/ELs.
Despite the well-documented cognitive, educational, psychosocial, cultural, and work-related benefits associated with bilingualism (Collins et al., 2011; Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2016; Toppelberg, 2011; see Chapter 4 in this volume), parents, teachers, health professionals, and policy makers often express unsubstantiated concerns and beliefs regarding the supposed negative effects of dual language exposure in children with disabilities and their presumed difficulty or inability to become bilingual (see Kay-Raining
Bird et al., 2012; Thordardottir, 2006). Box 10-2 presents these common myths and explains how they are not supported by research evidence.
The common myths discussed in Box 10-2 unfortunately lead to misinformed and potentially damaging professional and parental practices. The practice of recommending that families of students with disabilities discontinue their exposure to the home language is, unfortunately, widespread in educational as well as in health care settings and applied to a broad range of disabilities (language, learning, emotional/behavioral, and developmental). As explained in Box 10-2, this practice is not supported for most DLLs/ELs with disabilities in most situations by the available educational, clinical, and developmental evidence; indeed, as discussed in more detail later in the chapter, evidence suggests that it may be highly detrimental. Overall, continued support for the home language through intervention or natural exposure helps develop that language while not hindering and even facilitating (through transfer of language skills) the learning of the second language (L2) (see also Chapter 4 in this volume). In “additive” environments, the two languages do not compete, but result in linguistic, cognitive, socioemotional, and cultural gains crucial for children with disabilities.
OVERVIEW OF RELEVANT POLICY ISSUES
This section provides an overview of the major federal policies that address the educational needs of DLLs/ELs with disabilities. All of the documents discussed here touch on the following areas related to educational practice for DLLs/ELs with disabilities: (1) disproportionate representation in special education, (2) assessment and identification, (3) instruction and services, and (4) reclassification as English-proficient.
Policy Related to the Disproportionate Representation of ELs in Special Education
The introduction to IDEA lists a series of findings that highlight the challenges educators face in referral, assessment, and service provision for children with limited English proficiency who are considered for or receiving special education services. It has been shown that students considered limited English proficient are disproportionately referred to and placed in special education. Disproportionate representation is defined as the extent to which membership in a given (ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic, or gender) group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category (Oswald et al., 1999, p. 198). The problem is multidimensional
TABLE 10-1 Specific Disability Categories and Some Relevant Issues for DLLs/ELs
|Disability||Relevant Characteristics||Identification and Assessment||Instruction and Outcomes|
|Specific Learning Disability (SLD)||
|Intellectual Disability (ID)||
adaptive behaviors crucial because of variability in culture-based expectations
|Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (E/BD)||
|Disability||Relevant Characteristics||Identification and Assessment||Instruction and Outcomes|
|Language Impairment (LI)||
|Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)||
SOURCE: Data from http://www.asha.org/PRPSpecificTopic.aspx?folderid=8589935327§ion=Assessment [November 1, 2017].
and includes over- and underrepresentation.3 Patterns of disproportionate placement of racial minorities are most salient in the high-prevalence disabilities, particularly SLD, mild ID, speech/language impairment (SLI), and E/BD (National Research Council, 2002). Box 10-3 presents a review of the placement patterns that vary at the national and state levels by disability category and year and the heterogeneity of the population.
Sections 616 and 618 of IDEA specify systems for states and the federal government to use to track such disproportionality. The secretary of
3 Disproportionality is commonly measured with a relative risk ratio, which is defined as a group’s “risk of identification/placement in a given category compared to [another group’s] risk in the same category . . . the term relative risk [is used] because the effect of the risk factor (e.g., language status) [is] evaluated relative to some referent group [e.g., English proficient students], and [is] therefore not an absolute indicator of risk. . . . A positive risk ratio [indicates] that EL status [is] associated with an increased likelihood of special education identification or placement relative to the comparison group, whereas a negative ratio [indicates] a decreased likelihood” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 323). A ratio of 1 means that both groups have the same risk of identification. The ratio threshold for overrepresentation varies across studies, ranging from 1.2 to 2, and that for underrepresentation ranges from 0.5 to 0.9. These thresholds tend to be higher in professional practice; for example, states require relative risk ratios ranging from 2 to 5 for overrepresentation.
education is responsible for using the data to monitor the presence of significant disproportionality among specific subgroups with respect to their identification as children with disabilities, placement in particular settings (e.g., regular education, separate classes, separate schools), and experience with disciplinary actions (e.g., suspensions and expulsions). One complication of this monitoring system is that under IDEA, states themselves define how they will calculate disproportionality, and recent evidence suggests that a sizable number of states have increased the cut-off score for defining disproportionality while complying with IDEA reporting and monitoring requirements (Cavendish et al., 2014). This makes it challenging for the federal government to monitor disproportionality in a consistent manner. A possible consequence is that substantially large numbers of minority learners may be placed in special education, but school districts and states may not be required to review their diagnostic practices critically as a means of ruling out inappropriate identification.
The U.S. Department of Education attempted to address disparities in special education through a multiyear disproportionality analysis (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). The report of that analysis does not include a statistic on underrepresentation, but includes only statistics reflecting percentage and number of districts with risk ratios above the national median (i.e., a measure of overrepresentation). This omission may be problematic in the case of ELs, as they are underrepresented at the national level: 9 percent of ELs versus 11-13 percent of the general population are identified as having a disability, and ELs constitute only 8 percent of students with disabilities but 9.5 percent of the general student population.
Policy on Assessment and Identification for DLL/ELs with Disabilities
The question of disproportionate representation of DLLs/ELs in special education (both under- and overrepresentation) may be a result of
the process of assessing and identifying students for special education eligibility called “Child Find” in IDEA (Section 612(a)(3)). Child Find is a provision stating that all children with disabilities (including DLLs/ELs, although they are not specifically named) residing in a given state must be identified and evaluated to determine what special education and related services they need. A special rule for eligibility determination (often called the “Exclusionary Clause”) states that a child cannot be determined eligible for special education services if the “determinant factor for such determination is a) lack of appropriate instruction in reading, b) lack of appropriate instruction in math, or c) limited English proficiency” (Section 614(b)(5)). Because educators must rule out English proficiency as a determining factor for a child’s learning difficulties, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reportedly often find an impermissible delay of assessment based on DLL/EL status and/or language proficiency level. In their recent “Dear Colleague” letter, they explain that DLLs/ELs considered to have a disability should be evaluated independently of their English language proficiency (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, 2015).
In addition to the Exclusionary Clause, IDEA includes a set of procedural safeguards intended to protect DLLs/ELs and their parents during the assessment and identification process. For example, local education agencies (LEAs) must ensure that the assessments and tools used to evaluate a child for disabilities and subsequent special education eligibility “are provided and administered in the language and form most likely to yield accurate information on what the child knows and can do academically, developmentally, and functionally, unless it is not feasible to so provide or administer” (Section 614(b)(3)(A)(ii)). Despite this provision, DOJ and OCR find that DLLs/ELs are often assessed only in English even though that is not their L1 (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, 2015), suggesting that LEAs may be in violation of the regulations. IDEA also requires that all assessments be administered by bilingual personnel and trained interpreters, unless doing so is not possible. States are given the authority to determine the qualifications of personnel who administer assessments, and there are no specific regulations related to personnel training.
Finally, IDEA addresses the need to include parents of DLLs/ELs in the process of assessing and identifying their children for special education services. IDEA states that when an LEA proposes to initiate or rejects the initiation of evaluation, prior notices must be sent to parents and written in their L1 unless doing so is not feasible. In addition to being adequately informed of their children’s referral for special education evaluation in their L1, parents have the right to participate in the team that determines a student’s eligibility for special education and educational
needs (Section 614(b)(4)(A)). Box 10-4 illustrates the complex interaction between families and trained personnel during the assessment process.
If a DLL/EL is ultimately determined to be eligible for special education services, federal policy dictates that it may be necessary to review the student’s identification as a DLL/EL. This is especially the case if the student in question was identified as a DLL/EL without accommodations or alternative screeners. Such DLLs/ELs with disabilities may have been inappropriately identified as DLLs/ELs based on their disabilities. Research is needed, however, on what accommodations and alternative screeners would be most appropriate for measuring the English language proficiency of DLLs/ELs with disabilities (Shafer Willner et al., 2008, 2010).
Policy on Instruction and Services for DLLs/ELs with Disabilities
According to Section 612 of IDEA, all states are required to offer a free and appropriate public education to all students with disabilities ages 3-21, including DLLs/ELs, in the “least restrictive environment.” The least restrictive environment means that, to the extent possible, children with disabilities should be educated with students who do not have disabilities, with removal from regular education classrooms limited to instances when
students’ disabilities prevent them from receiving adequate education in such a classroom with individualized supports. This decision is based on a student’s individualized education program (IEP),4 which outlines what special education services must be provided to the student by qualified, trained special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and related service personnel. Additionally, for children with limited English proficiency, educators should “consider the language needs of the child as such needs relate to the child’s IEP” (Section 614(d)(3)(B)(ii)).
In addition to IDEA, ESSA includes regulations on academic standards. States must adopt challenging academic standards that prepare students for postsecondary education and the workforce. For the most significantly disabled students, states can create alternative academic achievement standards, but these alternative standards must be consistent with IDEA guidelines and ensure that students are prepared for postsecondary education. States also must adopt English language proficiency standards that cover four domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. English language proficiency standards must align with states’ academic standards.
Federal policy also addresses issues pertaining to the instruction and services for DLLs/ELs with disabilities through early intervening services (for school-age children) and early intervention services (for children aged birth to 3 years). Early intervening services include academic and behavioral evaluations, services, and supports and are typically implemented before students are evaluated for special education services (often considered a general education requirement). LEAs, which can allocate some IDEA funds to early intervening services (designed for students in K-12, with particular emphasis on those in grades K-3), must report how many students receive early intervening services each year, as well as the number of students who once received such services and subsequently have received special education and related services. The act includes nothing specific about providing early intervening services for students with limited English proficiency.
DLLs with disabilities ages birth to 3 years are eligible for early intervention services, which are different from the early intervening services that target school-age children. Early intervention services are provided in natural environments, such as the child’s home and community settings, to the extent possible. An individualized family service plan must be developed to outline the services and goals for the child, including the services’ anticipated length, duration, and frequency (Section 636). Early intervention services target school readiness and may incorporate preliteracy, language,
4 Federal guidelines governing the placement of children in special education programs require that a meeting of the student’s IEP team (made up of qualified professionals and parents) be convened several times each year to evaluate the student’s progress and consider decisions about the continuation and addition of services.
and numeracy skills (as well as other services related to physical and cognitive development).
Policy on the Reclassification of ELs with Disabilities as English-Proficient
In accordance with ESSA, all states must have a system for annually assessing the English language proficiency of their ELs in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The results of these assessments must be included in state report cards that are sent to the secretary of education (Section 1111(b)(2)(H)). States can choose to exclude assessment scores of ELs who have been in the country for less than a year (in year 2, a measure of growth on assessments must be included, and by year 3, the proficiency scores must be included). These scores do not count toward the district’s or state’s performance, but are made publicly available. Although ELs with disabilities are not specifically cited in these regulations, white papers released by the U.S. Department of Education (2014) and the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education (2015) indicate that ELs with disabilities must be included in state annual assessments of English language proficiency for students with limited English proficiency. These assessments factor into the decision to exit ELs from EL status (see Box 10-5).
In addition to implementing accommodations, the LEA, school personnel, and/or IEP team may have input into the decision of whether a student is proficient in English, depending on the state’s definition of English language proficiency. However, the U.S. Department of Education (2014) explains that IDEA contains no provision that would authorize the IEP team to remove the EL designation before the student has attained English language proficiency based on standardized or alternative assessments. Thus, it is important that more research be conducted on valid and reliable accommodations and alternative assessments for measuring the English language proficiency of ELs with disabilities.
Taken together, evidence on policy to date reflects a complex configuration of factors mediating placement rates for ELs. Research is scarce on underrepresentation and whether placement risk varies by type of school district, student race, EL subgroup (e.g., language proficiency level), and disability. A key limitation of the research in this area is the lack of explicit theoretical grounding of studies and the formulation of theoretical propositions stemming from the available evidence (Skiba et al., 2016). Greater clarity and rigor are critically needed regarding key aspects of this research, such as what counts as over- and underrepresentation (studies use different cut-off points for disproportionality), measures of EL status (e.g., school district classification based on English proficiency versus parent reports of language use), and various methodological issues (e.g., longitudinal versus cross-sectional designs; sampling procedures; theoretical rationale for the selection of controls; definition and analysis of poverty, including its timing, magnitude, and duration) (Skiba et al., 2016).
OVERVIEW OF IDENTIFICATION AND EVALUATION PRACTICES
Professional organizations and practitioners in second language and special education fields regularly raise questions about the appropriate timing for identification of DLLs/ELs for special education services and whether reliable criteria exist for the diagnoses of specific disabilities.
In the United States, multiple factors shape the ability to differentiate developmental differences associated with acquisition of a second language (L2) from disability. First are classification issues related to the DLL/EL population and students with disabilities. Abedi (2008), for instance, found that more than 90 percent of the variance in DLL/EL classification was not related to learners’ English proficiency. Rather, ethnicity, social class, and reports from parents and teachers on quality of language use played a substantial role in classification decisions. In turn, “the classification of [a DLL/EL] with disabilities remains elusive in part due to the lack of consensus in the field on who [a DLL/EL] actually is and how to refer to these students” (Minnema et al., 2005, p. 10). These classification ambiguities are related,
in part, to the fact that English language proficiency is negatively associated with a disability diagnosis. For instance, Abedi (2008) reports misclassification of ELs with the lowest levels of English proficiency as learners with disabilities, while Shelton (2007) found that overrepresentation in certain disability categories in middle schools in California was more noticeable among ELs with the lowest English proficiency levels. It has also been found that ELs tend to be overlooked for early reading interventions because of limited English proficiency (Limbos and Geva, 2001).
Other factors further complicate the differentiation of L2-related differences from disabilities. These include the scarcity of research on the intersection between L2 acquisition and disability, the lack of validated assessment measures and procedures for DLLs/ELs, technical limitations (e.g., limited access to datasets that provide insight on L2/disability links, limited assessment tools), population issues (e.g., behaviors associated with L2 acquisition or with cultural/linguistic community practices that can be confused with learning disabilities), and lack of opportunity to learn (e.g., limited access to language supports and qualified teachers) (Klingner, 2014; Ortiz and Artiles, 2010). The case study in Annex 10-1 at the end of this chapter highlights the importance of these factors for proper classification and/or diagnosis. Table 10-2 lists behaviors associated with learning disabilities that are similar to behaviors exhibited by learners acquiring an L2. Some of these similarities apply to SLI as well.
Early Identification of DLLs/ELs with Disabilities5
DLLs/ELs are less likely than non-DLLs/ELs to be referred to early intervention and early special education, which may have serious consequences. In a nationally representative study of 48-month-olds born in 2001 (N = 7,950), Morgan and colleagues (2012) showed that speakers of a language other than English at home were 48 percent less likely than English home speakers to be referred for early intervention. Hispanics and Asians, respectively, were 56 percent and 23 percent (blacks were 36%) less likely than non-Hispanic whites to be referred for early intervention. Thus, language barriers and other factors appear to be a determinant of lack of referral for Hispanics. Lower access to health care may also be responsible for low referral rates, as pediatricians and other physicians often initiate these referrals; identification of developmental disorders by physicians occurs 1-2 years earlier than identification by preschool staff (Palfrey et al., 1987). Therefore, the role of early childhood programs, such as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting federal program and early care
5 Some passages in this section are based on and Chen and Gutiérrez-Clellan (2013) and Hanson and Espinosa (2016).
TABLE 10-2 Similarities in Behaviors Associated with Learning Disabilities and Second Language Acquisition
|Behavior Associated with Learning Disability||Behavior Associated with Second Language (L2) Acquisition|
|Difficulty with auditory discrimination and/or phonological awareness||Students may not be accustomed to hearing sounds in the L2 that are not found in their L1. Unfamiliar sounds in the L2 may also be difficult for the student to produce.|
|Difficulty with sight words, words with multiple meanings, figurative language, or idioms||Students may be confused by common words, figurative language, or idioms in the L2; however, students may understand the underlying concept in their L1.|
|Difficulty understanding which letters make which sounds||Students may be confused by letter sounds in L2 when different from L1 or when this literacy skill has not been developed in the L1.|
|Difficulty with story narration and retelling||Students may have trouble with story narration and retelling when they do not have sufficient development of oral proficiency in addition to instruction in reading and writing.|
|Difficulty with reading fluency||Students may have difficulty reading fluently and conveying expression in their L2. Students may understand more than they are able to convey.|
|May seem disengaged during instruction||Students may appear disengaged during instruction in the L2 when explanations are provided without visual cues or other scaffolding techniques in place to make instruction more comprehensible.|
|May seem frustrated or unmotivated||Students may appear frustrated or unmotivated. This can occur if assignments are not at the appropriate level for them or when they do not understand why the assignment is meaningful or relevant.|
SOURCE: Summarized from Klinger (2008).
and education (ECE) programs, which can provide referrals and connections to health care access for at-risk DLLs/ELs, cannot be overemphasized.
An important question for home visiting, ECE, health, and other professionals is whether they are accurately identifying all DLLs/ELs who have special needs and could benefit from early intervention services. As noted above, current demographics, when compared with service rates, suggest that young Hispanics with disabilities frequently are not being identified
(National Center for Education Statistics, 2007; Reichow et al., 2016; Rueda and Windmueller, 2006). Although Hispanics ages birth to 5 represent more than 15 percent of the total population, only about 2 percent of Hispanics among the birth-to-3 population receive intervention services; the percentage increases to almost 9 percent for preschoolers, which is still short of the estimated need. As discussed previously, Hispanics and ELs continue to be underrepresented in K-12 programs among children with disabilities at the national level, but in specific states (California, New York) and specific districts, they are overrepresented. These uneven and fluctuating service rates demonstrate a need for more consistent definitions and eligibility criteria for DLLs/ELs across the grades, as well as improved methods for identifying DLLs/ELs ages birth to 5 who may need special services (Reichow et al., 2016).
For DLLs/ELs with the more severe disabilities (ASD, ID) and E/BD, significant underidentification and lack of or delayed services have been documented. Rates of referral to early intervention/early childhood special education also are lower than those for non-DLLs/ELs. This differential is due, in part, to barriers to health care access (language and cultural barriers, lack of referral due to hesitation by professionals, misattribution of delays to growing up with two languages, lack of insurance, lack of parents’ familiarity with the health care system). Early identification is predictive of functional outcomes for both ID and ASD. Early, high-quality intensive services can sometimes, in cases of mild to moderate ID, improve intellectual and adaptive functioning to the point that an individual no longer meets criteria for ID (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition [DSM-5]). Therefore, it is particularly important to identify and provide services for early indicators of ID, ASD, LI, SLD, and E/BD.
The Office of Head Start’s National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness and Quality Teaching and Learning recently published guidelines for programs on methods for conducting developmental screening for DLLs/ELs (Office of Head Start, n.d.). These guidelines recommend two options for collecting accurate information about a child’s developmental status when no valid and reliable screening instruments are appropriate for specific language groups. The first option involves gathering detailed information from the family about the child’s knowledge, skills, and abilities; conducting teacher observations over the 45-day screening period; and collaborating with the family to make a referral decision. The second option entails hiring a skilled and trained interpreter. Both options require that staff consult with others who are knowledgeable about child development, speak the child’s language, and are familiar with the child’s culture. Staff must collect data on what the child knows and is able to do in both the home language and English, and incorporate the family’s perspective on
the child’s abilities. (Box 10-6 explains the importance of family involvement in evaluating DLLs/ELs with disabilities.) Final decisions are to be made by the appropriate staff in collaboration with families. The Head Start National Center also provides a sample form, Gathering and Using
Information That Families Share,6 to assist with the data collection process. To make accurate judgments about a child’s need for special services, it is critical that all home visiting and ECE professionals understand the child’s level of proficiency and progress over time in both languages.
Research on distinguishing underlying disabilities from normal differences in language acquisition between DLLs/ELs and non-DLLs/ELs takes one of two approaches. The core premise of the first body of work is that the differentiation between learning disabilities and learning difficulties linked to L2 acquisition should rely on a systemic multipronged approach. Three components of an integrated education system that coordinates general education, special education, and bilingual education/ESL services have been identified: (1) prevention of academic failure, (2) early intervention for struggling students, and (3) special education processes adapted for DLLs/ELs (Artiles and Ortiz, 2002; Linan-Thompson and Ortiz, 2009; Wilkinson et al., 2006). This model calls for an understanding of L2 acquisition processes, attention to typical L2 acquisition behaviors that might be confused with characteristics associated with SLD, and use of consultation models that take into account multiple individual and systemic factors (e.g., DLL/EL learning histories in both languages, qualities of assessment tools/procedures used, opportunities to learn in classrooms and schools) (Artiles and Klingner, 2006; Burr et al., 2015; Klingner et al., 2010; Ortiz and Artiles, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The second approach represents a new generation of problem-solving models that aims to predict or prevent misdiagnosis of disabilities among ELs in the context of academic interventions, such as response to intervention (RTI), which is discussed in detail below.
Multipronged Approach for Evaluating DLLs/ELs
Evaluation of DLLs/ELs for special education eligibility is a complex process that requires team decision making grounded in the expertise of special and general educators as well as L2 specialists. The evaluation process needs to provide an accurate and detailed account of what a child knows and can do developmentally, academically, and functionally in both languages (Linan-Thompson and Ortiz, 2009; Ortiz and Artiles, 2010). The assessment team needs to use evidence from both formal and informal measures and weigh the advantages and risks of using multiple languages
6 See at https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/cultural-linguistic/fcp/docs/dll_background_info.pdf [February 16, 2017].
during evaluation sessions. For instance, teams need to decide whether assessments of literacy should be conducted in L1 or L2, depending on the learning histories of learners. The assessment scores of DLLs/ELs in English may reflect risk in all areas measured. Yet measures administered in L1 may indicate that the student is in the low-risk range. Given the robust literature demonstrating the transferability of literacy skills (see Chapter 4), particularly across languages that share an alphabet, it is important that students’ native language literacy be assessed (Durgunoglu, 2002; Durgunoglu et al., 1993) in attempting to diagnose a language or learning disability. Considerations for the analysis and use of evaluation results are listed in Box 10-7.
Response to Intervention (RTI) Approach
One approach to serving children with learning disabilities is the model of RTI, which can be utilized for subject learning, although the bulk of the literature on ELs focuses on reading. Box 10-8 provides an overview of the RTI model.
In an RTI model, screening assessments should be conducted each quarter to determine which students need additional academic support because they have not shown adequate response to intervention. At the heart of all assessment is the need for reliable and valid tools. Box 10-9 describes the curriculum-based measures (CBMs) commonly used.
Given RTI’s visibility in IDEA and the fact that RTI models systematically identify groups of students with varying kinds of learning needs while also offering instructional resources through evidence-based interventions, the remainder of this section is organized around the tiers of RTI. The components within each tier are specified, with particular attention to DLLs/ELs. Box 10-10 outlines general guidelines for RTI models that include DLLs/ELs.
Tier 1: Instruction and Screening
Since RTI models presume adequate and appropriate instruction in general education, RTI teams need to ensure that each EL’s language proficiency is documented, understood by teachers, and aligned with all instruction (Brown and Doolittle, 2008; Brown and Sanford, 2011). In addition, the language(s) of instruction needs to be matched to the language(s) of assessment.
Each EL must receive federally mandated ESL instruction that targets growing one language proficiency level per year. This instruction is not an intervention but rather core instruction for eligible students. Yet the instructional strategies used in ESL programs need to be embedded throughout
all instruction and intervention for ELs (Chamot and O’Malley, 1994; Echevarria et al., 2008; Gersten and Baker, 2000).
If RTI instruction is to be appropriate for ELs, however, RTI teams need to make some adjustments to the model. It is recommended that teams (1) separate out the screening data to examine achievement patterns of student subgroups, comparing the growth of students with similar language and cultural backgrounds; (2) ensure the provision of legally mandated English language development services to eligible students as part of general education and monitor their progress at least annually (Brown and Sanford, 2011); and (3) adjust research-based intervention programs to align with
children’s instructional language proficiency and cultural/experiential backgrounds (Baker et al., 2014; Rivera Mindt et al., 2008).
Tiers 2 and 3: Research-Based Interventions
Tier 2 interventions tend to follow a standardized protocol that relies on small-group instruction. A number of studies have focused on early reading skills with ELs (e.g., letter naming, phoneme segmentation, nonsense words, oral reading fluency). Successful tier 2 interventions with ELs have been reported in recent years (McIntosh et al., 2007). Research on the efficacy of tier 2 reading interventions for ELs has found significant effects on reading comprehension from interventions in text-reading but not word-reading fluency alone, suggesting that comprehension may be strongly mediated by L2 oral language and listening comprehension skills (Crosson and Lesaux, 2010). Of interest, evidence suggests that interventions tailored to an individual’s patterns of strengths and weaknesses can have a greater impact than those that are standardized (Richards-Tutor et al., 2016).
Tier 3 interventions are generally more individualized relative to tier 2, although there have been studies of these interventions grounded in standardized protocols. Vaughn and colleagues (2011), for example, studied the impact of tier 3 standardized and individualized interventions and found no statistically significant differences between these two approaches. The same pattern was documented for ELs.
Nonetheless, questions have been raised about key aspects of RTI. For instance, Cirino and colleagues (2009, p. 775) conclude that “it is not clear what type of criteria should be used to establish response. . . . It is also unclear what kinds of measures are optimal for assessing responsiveness (e.g., phonology, decoding, comprehension, fluency). These issues are compounded for [ELs].” Linan-Thompson and colleagues (2007) examined nonresponders among 1st-grade ELs using three methods and found that discrepancy slope was the most accurate in identifying nonresponders. Richards-Tutor and colleagues (2012) investigated three different methods and discovered that each identified different percentages and different groups of nonresponder students. Based on this evidence, they recommended that multiple criteria be used to identify nonresponders and that caution be exercised with respect to using formulaic decision-making models—for example, by including students’ educational experiences, opportunity to learn in the general education classroom in relation to their language proficiency level and cultural background, achievement in comparison with true peers, and access to literacy in the home.
Theoretical and methodological questions concerning cultural and linguistic differences have also been raised (Artiles and Kozleski, 2010; Klingner and Edwards, 2006). Some evidence suggests that interventions
made no difference or had a negative impact on learners “who scored near the cut point on their fall screening test” (Balu et al., 2015, p. ES-16). It should be noted that this finding was not observed consistently across grade levels or outcomes. Furthermore, a qualitative study of the implementation of RTI with ELs in Colorado found that school personnel using the RTI model had deficit views of ELs, which were reflected in the lack of alignment between instruction and assessment, a negative school culture, lack of teacher preparation (particularly on L2 issues), and limited curricular resources (Orosco and Klingner, 2010).
RESEARCH ON IDENTIFICATION, INSTRUCTION, AND ASSESSMENT FOR DLLS/ELS WITH DISABILITIES
Identification for Specific Disabilities
The purpose of identification is to afford access to educational programs and specialized mental health interventions. However, the 2000 surgeon general’s report (U.S. Public Health Service, 1999) raised concerns about ethnic minority children’s access to mental health services, and Latino and other children with immigrant backgrounds have been found to be at risk for not receiving specialty mental health services (Toppelberg et al., 2013). Factors that contribute to this situation include lack of health insurance; language barriers; an unrecognized need for services; and the intersection with low socioeconomic status, childhood adversity, and neighborhood violence (Alegria et al., 2015; Toppelberg et al., 2013). These factors affect disproportionately Latinos and other immigrant groups (Flores and Vega, 1998; Organista, 2000) that have a high prevalence rate for mental health conditions such as major depression, suicidality, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Toppelberg and Collins, 2010). The high prevalence of these disorders among DLLs/ELs in general, coupled with delayed or no access to services and health care due to the family’s language and other health care barriers, makes this a particularly vulnerable population (Toppelberg et al., 2013) that may require Section 504 or other accommodations.
Most assessors understand that the performance of DLLs/ELs on English IQ tests is partially a function of their English proficiency. However, they erroneously believe that L1 language tests will provide more accurate and valid results. These tests are usually normed on monolingual speakers of the home language in a country other than the United States, rather than in the sociocultural and language group of individual DLLs/ELs in the United States. Brown (2008) investigated the performance of 34 3rd-
and 4th-grade ELs with medium to advanced English language proficiency on a commonly used IQ test normed on Spanish monolinguals. None of the study participants had ever been referred for interventions or special education evaluation, and all were receiving ESL services. Half of the group received Spanish instruction for literacy and math, and the other half received all-English instruction. Brown found the mean IQ score of the Spanish instruction group to be within the average range, but at 90.81, their average was lower than the normative average of 100. The English instruction group was in the below average range. Thus, multidisciplinary teams using this common Spanish language cognitive test could easily misidentify ELs in schools as having a disability, even ID. A critical view of IQ testing and borderline scores continues to be a crucial and complex topic in ID diagnosis. The case history highlighted in Annex 10-1 is a reminder of these complexities.
One option for avoiding overreliance on verbal tests is to assess cognitive abilities through the use of nonverbal cognitive tests (see DeThorne and Schaefer, 2004), some of which can be pantomimed, thus minimizing reliance on or bias due to language proficiency. Research on a community sample of 6-year-old Latino ELs using one of these tests showed IQ scores in the average range (mean 95.62; standard deviation [SD] = 11.52) and no significant IQ differences across groups of ELs who were proficient in Spanish, English, or both (means ranging from 96.24 to 101.48) (Collins et al., 2014). Of interest, a “limited proficient” group (with low skills in both languages) had IQ scores (mean 89.93; SD = 9.45) that were significantly lower than those of the English-proficient group. This type of nonverbal test may therefore be useful in assessing ELs.
DSM-5 clearly favors a complex cognitive profile resulting from neuropsychological testing over a single IQ score number. However, few neuropsychologists in the United States are bilingual or have the training or experience to evaluate DLLs/ELs (Rivera Mindt et al., 2008, 2010). Other professional workforce factors identified by Ware and colleagues (2015) include lack of properly trained interpreters, deficits in the education and training of speech/language pathologists (SLPs) and a dearth of bilingual SLPs, and lack of confidence of professionals in their own DLL/EL assessments. Misdiagnosis of DLLs/ELs with disabilities (false negatives and false positives) can have serious consequences for children who could benefit from either challenging educational opportunities (overdiagnosis) or high-quality intensive services early on (underdiagnosis) (Ware et al., 2015).
Diagnosis of LI in DLLs/ELs can be complicated further by the fact that their language proficiency, with or without LI, can differ among their
languages and from that of monolinguals (Kohnert, 2010; Paradis et al., 2011). Researchers and clinicians agree, however, that bilingual children with LI show impairments in both languages (Kohnert, 2010). Research has shown that, compared with typically developing DLLs/ELs, those with LI have language deficits in such areas as verb inflection, verbal fluency, phonological awareness, and phonological working memory in both languages (Aguilar-Mediavilla et al., 2014; Blom and Paradis, 2013; Girbau and Schwartz, 2008). In DLLs/ELs, slower than normal development in only one language is probably a reflection of the quality and quantity of opportunities to learn that language, whereas difficulties in both languages are more likely to reflect underlying impairment. It is for this reason that assessing DLLs/ELs in both languages is imperative.
Mental disorders often have a significant effect on school performance and prosocial behavior at school. For instance, these disorders may restrict access to educational opportunities or extracurricular activities, including athletics, leading to long-term lower achievement, disengagement, withdrawal, nonparticipation in activities, and possibly absenteeism and school dropout. Schools therefore have a key role to play as a point of access for highly needed mental health services (Institute of Medicine, 1997).
Instruction and Assessment
Specific Learning Disability
A sizable body of research addresses instruction and assessment of DLLs/ELs and non-DLLs/ELs with SLD. However, relatively fewer studies focus specifically on DLLs/ELs with SLD. Ortiz (1997) and Baca and Cervantes (1989) did pioneering work on bilingual special education and produced instructional and assessment models and guidelines over the years, mainly on students with SLD. Other researchers have identified promising practices for DLLs/ELs at risk for reading disorders or with SLD at the preschool or early elementary level (Brown et al., 2013; Lovett et al., 2008; McMaster et al., 2008; Vaughn et al., 2011).
A recurrent question in this literature is the efficacy of using L1 in instruction and intervention for DLLs/ELs. Evidence supports the positive impact of interventions that use L1 instruction. In one series of studies, small-group interventions were provided in English or Spanish to 1st-grade ELs at risk for reading difficulties (Vaughn et al., 2005, 2006a). The language of intervention was matched to the language of the literacy instruction in the general education setting. Interventions included explicit
instruction in oral language, listening comprehension, and reading skills and utilized strategies deemed best practices for ESL instruction. Vaughn and colleagues (2005) found significant posttest differences for the intervention groups, with an average effect size on Spanish reading measures of 0.59 (a subsequent replication study found similar results on Spanish reading measures, although with a lower effect size of 0.27). The intervention effects were maintained, and all but one student met benchmark criteria at the end of 1st grade and maintained grade-level status in 2nd grade (Linan-Thompson et al., 2006). Similarly, Cirino and colleagues (2009) conducted a 1-year follow-up intervention study in English and Spanish with ELs at risk for reading problems in 2nd grade and found significant differences benefiting the treatment group on Spanish measures of spelling decoding, fluency, and comprehension.
Richards-Tutor and colleagues (2016) conducted a systematic review of reading interventions with ELs (including ELs with SLD) published between 2000 and 2012. The findings of this work are summarized in Box 10-11.
Research on instruction for DLL/ELs with E/BD is scarce (Nelson et al., 2008). Rogers-Adkinson and colleagues (2012) argue that with accommodations and adaptations, instructional practices found to be effective with students with E/BD can be used with DLLs/ELs with E/BD. Preciado and colleagues (2009), for example, worked with DLLs/ELs who exhibited problematic behaviors in the classroom. They used a single-subject multiple-baseline design across participants and implemented a function-based intervention with multiple components to address participants’ academic and behavioral problems (participants had not been diagnosed with E/BD; one was labeled as having SLD). The intervention included direct instruction in early literacy skills, including vocabulary. In addition, a tutor supported participants in various instructional aspects, such as review of instructions for independent work and social skill learning. The researchers report a positive impact of the academic intervention on reading fluency and task completion; three of the participants showed improved behaviors.
Response to Intervention
Research on RTI with ELs is beginning to emerge; evidence to date shows that interventions can have a positive impact (Vanderwood and Nam, 2007). For instance, it has been reported that small-group interventions focused on early reading skills (i.e., phonological awareness) benefit ELs (K-1) (Leafstedt et al., 2004). Similarly, peer-based tier 1 interventions have shown a positive effect on ELs’ literacy learning (Calhoon et al., 2006, 2007; McMaster et al., 2008). Other successful tier 1 and 2 interventions with ELs have been reported in the last 15 years (De la Colina et al., 2001; Denton et al., 2004; Haager and Windmueller, 2001; Linan-Thompson et al., 2003, 2006; Vaughn et al., 2005, 2006a).
A concern is that some of the research-based interventions that are commonly used in RTI have not been researched with ELs, who may respond differently from monolinguals. However, some findings on early reading with English-speaking populations have been validated in ELs (Richards-Tutor et al., 2016; Vaughn et al., 2005). A search of the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse revealed only eight intervention programs researched with ELs that had a positive effect on reading achievement and/or English language proficiency. In summary, Vanderwood and Nam (2007, p. 415) argue that “it is premature to conclude that RTI should be used with all low-achieving [ELs] … additional intervention research is needed to determine the most optimal intensity and length of treatment and to further address the relative effectiveness of English versus native-language instruction or intervention.”
Conclusion 10-1: Dual language learners (DLLs)/English learners (ELs are less likely than their non-DLL/EL peers to be referred to early intervention and early special education programs, with potentially serious consequences. Evidence indicates that early childhood education, home visiting, health, and other professionals are not identifying all DLLs/ELs with special needs—such as those with autism spectrum disorder and language impairment—who could benefit from such programs.
Conclusion 10-2: Growing up with two languages does not place dual language learners/English learners at greater risk for having a language impairment or other disability or when they have a disability, for compromising their language or cognitive development.
Conclusion 10-3: Compared with English-only interventions for language impairment, dual language interventions result in equal or even faster growth of English skills, with the additional benefit that they lead to continuing growth in the home language.
Conclusion 10-4: The disproportionate underrepresentation of dual language learners (DLLs)/English learners (ELs) with disabilities reflects policies in IDEA, which allows states to define how disproportionality will be calculated. Currently available data on rates of identification of DLLs/ELs with disabilities are insufficient, and patterns of underrepresentation and overrepresentation at the national, state, and district levels by grade and disability category are not discernible. The U.S. Department of Education’s recent analyses and a resulting regulation, while a positive step, have focused only on overrepresentation, overlooking the possibility of underrepresentation for a number of disability categories and age groups.
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ANNEX 10-1: A CASE HISTORY: AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE COMPLEXITIES OF ASSESSMENT IN ELS7
The following case study illustrates the complexities of assessment in DLLs/ELs. It also demonstrates how a narrow interpretation of test scores in a DLL/EL can mislead an examiner toward a diagnosis of disability.
Robby entered school in California in September 1998 and spoke only Spanish. Three months before he started school, California voters passed Proposition 227, which banned the use of languages other than English in the state’s schools, despite the fact that one in four California students, like Robby, spoke little or no English. The school district serving the community where Robby lived had been quick to comply with the law and replace bilingual education with English-only classes. His parents had asked that he be placed in a bilingual class when they enrolled him in school, but were told by district administrators that he had to attend English-only classes.
7 This case study was presented to the committee by Lily Wong Fillmore in January 2016.
There was nothing his immigrant parents, who spoke little English, could do.
Robby was the youngest of their four U.S.-born sons. The older boys had been in “bilingual classes” when they started school in the district, and had teachers who used Spanish and English in school even though the curriculum was taught entirely in English. This was not a true bilingual program;8 nonetheless, the use of Spanish in school had given Robby’s older brothers several years to learn English before being placed in English-only classes. Robby would have to deal with English as soon as he entered school. Nonetheless, he was eager and ready for school. His parents might have been worried about his not knowing English, but Robby was not. His brothers had learned English, and he would, too.
By watching, listening, and following the lead of his classmates who understood what the teacher was saying better than he did, Robby was able to participate in instructional activities, make some sense out of what he was supposed to be learning at school, and pick up a little English along the way. Although his parents had indicated on the language survey form, necessary for school entry, that his primary language was Spanish and that Spanish was the language used in their home, he was classified as a “fluent English speaker.”9 So Robby’s language skills were never assessed formally, and as a consequence, he received no instructional support for learning English during his first 3 years in school.
Despite Robby’s language barrier, his first year ended “satisfactorily.” The teacher rated his performance in language arts as “satisfactory, but in need of improvement.” She commented, “tries very hard, but just isn’t getting the curriculum. The only letter he recognizes is ‘o.’” Robby’s second year in school, when he was in 1st grade (1999-2000), was by all accounts the most difficult one for him. Reading instruction in the district emphasized what was described as a phonics- and skills-based approach focused on explicit instruction. With his extremely limited grasp of English, Robby could not remember the sounds he was supposed to be matching up with letters or words with the texts he was supposed to be reading. His 1st-grade teacher was convinced that he was “language delayed and impaired.”10 She was impatient with his inability to remember things, and she apparently let him know how she felt about him.
Robby’s parents reported that there had been mornings when they had to insist that he go to school whether he wanted to or not, and he was
8 A true bilingual education program uses students’ primary language to teach some subjects, at least initially, adding English gradually until parity in the use of the two languages is achieved.
9 According to Robby’s cumulative school record folder.
10 Teacher’s note in Robby’s cumulative record.
often in tears when they picked him up after school. At some point, he decided that his 1st-grade teacher did not like him because he was a Spanish speaker. According to his parents, he stopped speaking Spanish that year. He was learning English, and although his knowledge of it was quite limited, he began using it exclusively, even at home. His parents eventually acclimated to the shift, as did his brothers. It was not difficult for the older boys because they were more proficient in English than they were in Spanish by then. But it was a difficult time for the parents. Neither could communicate easily in English. They managed the shift by speaking a mix of Spanish and English and relying on their older sons to serve as interpreters for their youngest.
By the second grade (2000-2001), Robby was no longer able to speak or understand Spanish beyond minimal levels. His English was still rudimentary, but after 2 years in school, he was an English monolingual. At home, he was not learning what he might have learned from his parents had he been able to communicate easily with them. At school, his poorly developed English skills hampered his efforts to keep up with his classmates academically. What seemed easy for his classmates was incomprehensible for him. He believed they were smart, while he was “dumb.”
Robby’s problems with language and learning at school followed him into the 3rd grade (school year 2001-2002), impeding his academic development to such a degree that the school sent his parents a letter in November indicating that his case was being referred to a “student study team” at a meeting to be held 3 weeks later. The letter was entirely in English, and because the parents were unable to read English, they did not understand the nature of the referral, nor did they realize that they were supposed to be present at the meeting. After this initial meeting—the only meeting that Robby’s parents did not attend and the only one that the school held to discuss Robby’s case—it was decided that Robby probably had severe learning disabilities and should be tested to qualify him for special education services.
Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 2001, schools had to demonstrate that all students were making progress toward meeting their state’s standards of full academic proficiency in such subjects as English language arts, math, and science by 2014. Schools were required to show by improvements in student test scores that they were making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward that goal, with serious consequences if they did not meet their AYP targets for several consecutive years.
Because of NCLB, the school district appeared eager to have students like Robby certified for special education services.11 The assessment began
11 Under NCLB, up to 1 percent of the students in a school could be tested by alternative means if they were certified as having learning disabilities.
with a review of his language status in December 2001. It was only then, 3 years after he had entered school, that the school discovered Robby’s primary language was Spanish. His parents were then notified by letter (in English) that Robby’s classification as a “fluent English-proficient” student was being changed to “English language learner at Beginning Level B.” His parents did not understand what this change would mean and were surprised that he had been classified as “fluent English-proficient” in the first place. At that point, the school might have concluded that whatever else was preventing Robby from thriving at school, an obvious problem was that his language needs had not been recognized for the past 3 years. Instead, he was placed in a special remedial program for English reading and given speech therapy. Compounding Robby’s academic problems at school was the fact that his primary language had atrophied from lack of use. He was getting imperfect English at home from his parents and was cut off from what they might have taught him in Spanish since he no longer understood it. Over time, Robby had become more and more practiced in the “learner” variety of English he and his parents spoke—he quite fluently, they but haltingly.
Each day, beginning in 3rd grade and continuing through 5th grade, during the 2-hour language arts period and part of the math period, Robby left his regular classroom and went to a “reading resource teacher.” The materials and skills-focused program he received dealt nearly exclusively with phonics, which led Robby to see reading as deciphering the relationship between symbols and sounds rather than words and meaning. The longest of the “decodable” stories he worked on consisted of four sentences, so there was little chance of him discovering literary purpose in reading, either. The difference between his classmates’ materials and the ones he was using was a source of substantial embarrassment to him; Robby hid his workbook and homework from his classmates.
The rest of Robby’s special education program consisted of a half-hour weekly session with the speech therapist. Robby’s speech therapy was premised on the language and speech assessment of an initial therapist who made no mention of Robby’s need for help in learning English as a second language, or of anything that might help him deal with the difficulties he had accrued over the past 3 years as a result of the school’s neglect of his language needs. Over the next 2 years, Robby fell further and further behind his classmates. His remedial program had not improved his reading ability greatly, and by the end of the 4th grade, he was referred for diagnostic testing by the school psychologist for a final disposition of his case.
Robby’s psychoeducational testing was administered mainly in English, although several subtests were given in Spanish, a language Robby no longer spoke or understood. From this battery of tests the psychologist concluded: “Based on current assessment findings, Robby appears to meet eligibility criteria as a student with ‘below average intellectual functioning’
(CCR [California Code of Regulations], Title V, Section 3030h).” After this report was submitted, a new code, “010,” appeared on Robby’s school cumulative record––the code for mental retardation.
Under the guidelines for the identification of mental retardation, the cut-off score for tests such as those Robby was given is 70. His scores were well above that cut-off in all but two subtests—the last ones given the day he was tested. Under CCR Title V, IQ test scores cannot serve as the only basis for a mental retardation determination. A child must also show “deficits in adaptive behavior” that would “adversely affect educational performance.” The Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, a rating scale completed by Robby’s teacher and one of his parents, addressed this issue. The test report summarizes as follows:
According to both parent and teacher, Robby does not dress himself in anticipation of changes in the weather, does not make his own bed without being reminded and without assistance, and does not care for his nails without assistance and being reminded.12 However, according to his mother, Robby is very helpful at home. Robby helps around the house with chores and running errands. In the classroom, Robby is very helpful, has good patience and self-control, and is described as a sweet and polite student.
Questions of accuracy aside, it mattered little, it appears, that the findings of this assessment had been interpreted as unsympathetically as possible. Should Robby have been tested in Spanish, for example, when he no longer understood or spoke that language (as was acknowledged in the psychologist’s report)? Or should he have been tested in English, for that matter, since his English language needs had been overlooked by the school? The question of validity was not considered.
The purpose of the assessment became clear during a meeting of Robby’s individualized education program (IEP) team. After discussing Robby’s lack of academic progress, the IEP team declared that his “disability” was so great that his needs could no longer be met at the school he was attending. It had been decided that he would be moved to a special all-day school for non-severely handicapped children (NSH/SDC) in a different community. Robby’s parents were assured that Robby’s needs would be better met at the NSH/SDC school. There was no discussion of state and federal special education requirements that children be kept in the least restrictive environment possible, nor was there any discussion after Robby’s parents objected
12 This part of the report surprised Robby’s mother when it was translated for her. She said she had not been asked about such matters, but had she been, she would have said that Robby had been dressing and caring for himself since he was 3 years of age. She said her son was not only helpful but very capable and dependable around the house.
to such a placement. The IEP team was adamant: Robby must attend the special school “for children like him” beginning in the fall.
After a visit to the NSH/SDC school to see what it was like, Robby’s parents realized that their son would not have lasted long there. The classes were disorderly and noisy and the students Robby’s parents met were angry, hostile, and uncooperative. They decided Robby did not need that kind of learning environment.
Friends and advocates advised Robby’s parents to decline his new placement and seek a transfer to a different district if necessary. So Robby’s parents kept him at home that fall rather than letting him attend the NSH/SDC school. Robby was tutored at home13 in math, reading, and language to keep him from falling further behind. Meanwhile, Robby’s parents and advocates continued to fight with the school district about Robby’s placement. They pointed out that the school had not met its obligation to provide the educational services Robby needed to overcome his language barrier to the curriculum. They argued that the testing on which the placement was based was not valid and had been misinterpreted. However, the school district refused to release Robby officially. That being the case, the neighboring school districts could not enroll him because he lived outside their enrollment boundaries.
As a result of the protracted struggle over his school placement, Robby began to show signs of anxiety and depression. He began to lose confidence even in his ability to do things that he had always done easily and well. For example, he talked his parents into giving him $50 (something they could not easily afford) to try out for a youth football league. On the first day of practice, he did everything he was asked to do and excelled in his efforts. However, he refused to return to the tryouts after the first day, saying he knew he was going to fail. His parents tried to persuade him to go back; the coach called repeatedly, saying he had done very well in the tryouts and should join in the practice, but nothing worked. Robby did not want more evidence that he was inadequate.
Finally, with the help of an attorney, Robby’s parents were able to schedule another IEP meeting. At this meeting, current and former teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, counselors, special education administrators, resource teachers, and specialists lined up to present arguments for the need to place Robby in an NSH/SDC school. As part of the opposition, Robby’s parents prepared a statement, in Spanish, presenting their objections. Then, Robby’s advocates presented his case. First, Robby knew no English when he started school, and Proposition 227 notwithstanding, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lau v. Nichols, the school had an
13 Robby’s family friends hired a reading recovery teacher and a graduate student in linguistics to tutor him in essential subjects while his parents negotiated with the district.
obligation to help him overcome the language barrier between him and the school’s curriculum. Second, despite the evidence presented of “language deficiencies and severe linguistic disorders,” Robby’s language development had been normal until he started school. Third, the results of the psychoeducational testing appeared to be flawed: even disregarding the questionable use of tests normed on native speakers of English with a child who was clearly an EL, it appeared that the district’s school psychologist based her finding on two subtests that came at the end of the testing session—the only two parts in which Robby’s performance fell below the cut-off score. When another psychologist tested Robby again, he performed above the cut-off on equivalent tests.
That was the turning point. The school psychologist who administered Robby’s initial testing must have realized that the district’s plan to concentrate its lowest-performing children into a few schools would not work in this case. She apologized to Robby’s parents. She said the results had been misinterpreted, and she realized how greatly this had affected Robby and his family.
It has been a decade now since that meeting. The district agreed to have Robby tested by an independent testing agency to settle the question of his placement.14 It also permitted his parents to enroll him at a different school where he might have a fresh start. With help from his friends and his teachers, Robby learned to read that year and finally was able to make some progress in school. In junior high school, Robby made the honor roll three times—a matter of considerable vindication and pride for him and his parents.
Once in high school, however, Robby had to struggle each semester against placement in remedial classes. He argued that he needed courses that would prepare him for college, not more remedial courses that led nowhere. Robby prevailed but lost anywhere from 3 weeks to a month and a half of class time each semester before being placed back in his academic classes. Nonetheless, he maintained a 3.0 grade point average in high school. On graduation day, he was despondent rather than triumphant, remembering the many barriers that had been placed in his path toward reaching that day. He realized how close he had come to not making it at all. Robby is now in his third year in college, and continues to believe school is worth the struggle.
14 After 3 days of testing and observation, Robby was declared to be “normal”—a noteworthy designation only in contrast to the district’s earlier finding. This was necessary to expunge the “010” designation on his file.