Contours of the Field: Equitable Representation of English Learners in Special Education

Note: this is the fifth in a series of posts explaining the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) recent report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Click here to read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.

Since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in 1990—and, indeed, even before then—K-12 English learner (EL) students have been disproportionately placed in special education courses compared to their English-proficient peers. You may be quick to assume (like me) that these students are placed in special education at higher rates so that their low English proficiency does not lower the mainstream test scores or so that the teacher does not have to spend extra time helping them catch up with their classmates.

But according to a recently published National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) consensus report, there are actually two sides to the term “disproportionately placed” depending on the type of disability identified. The authors define “disproportionate representation” as “the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category” (see page 10-10). As such, the concept includes both over- and underrepresentation of any group. Of course, trends of over- and underrepresentation of EL students in special education classes fluctuate across the country and within states and districts.

The NASEM report helpfully parses some of the research on the effects of disproportionate special education classification for ELs to better understand this trend (see Chapter 10). While a recent study found that minority students are disproportionately underrepresented in special education nationally, the same trend is not necessarily true for EL students in every state, in every district, at every grade level, or for every category of identifiable disability. Local variability matters.

For example, EL students in grades 6-12 in several California school districts were found to be overrepresented in special education classes, while the same group of students in the same districts were almost underrepresented in grades K-3. The same phenomenon of over- and underrepresentation holds true in several Arizona public school districts, where it was found that EL students were over-identified as having a specific learning disability (SLD) such as dyslexia, but under-identified in the category of emotional/behavioral disorders.

The danger of underrepresentation of ELs in special education services is fairly intuitive. The whole point of IDEA is to ensure students receive the education they need and deserve—one that is tailored to their unique needs as learners. At the same time, overrepresentation is just as problematic.

Consider this scenario: a second-grade student recently arrived in the United States from Lebanon and has low English proficiency. Arabic is the primary language spoken in his home, and neither he nor his parents possess the language skills necessary to communicate effectively with the teachers or administrators in his school (none of whom speak Arabic). Because he is quickly falling behind his peers in academic achievement, for reasons unknown to his teacher, he is referred to testing for placement in special education classes. Because this test is administered in English, the student qualifies for services, despite not necessarily having a disability. As a result, he faces lowered academic expectations and is not able to progress at the pace he otherwise could. He falls even further behind his English-proficient classmates in language acquisition and academic progress in all other content-area subjects in English.

While this situation is hypothetical, it is one that outlines many of the common causes of overrepresentation of some EL students in special education. In this scenario, the error in identification largely stems from the method of determining special education placement—namely, administering the test in the student’s non-native language. In reality, IDEA requires that schools rule out English proficiency as a determinant factor in referring a student for special education services by administering the test in the language most likely to demonstrate the student’s actual knowledge (see section (a)(1)(A)(3)(ii)). But the Department of Justice and Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights find that EL students are often tested in English, regardless of this provision.

This is not to say that we should dismiss all EL students’ struggles as only a reflection of their emerging English skills. Some of these students should receive special education classes, like one student in Texas who did not receive the help he needed. Despite consistent attempts by his mother to convince his teacher that he needed to be evaluated for special education services, the district dismissed the mother’s concerns by assuring her that her son simply needed more time to learn English. In this way, being overcautious with a student’s placement can be just as detrimental to his achievement as wrongfully placing him in special education.

Ultimately, getting identification right is a fine line for educators to walk. San Diego has attempted to address this issue by introducing evaluations prior to testing that take into account extrinsic factors in the child’s life such as lack of parental involvement, nutrition, and attendance issues that may affect the student’s performance rather than just language proficiency. This type of comprehensive approach is a promising one because it captures a broader range of factors impacting students' academic performance.

Progress will still have to be made, however, in the identification testing practices and ensuring tests are provided in a student’s native language. Here lies the crux of the issue. The Minnesota Department of Education has addressed testing practices by issuing guidance on how to reduce bias in special education evaluation, including using informal language assessments as a method of navigating the possible lack of adequate testing materials in the student’s native language (see chapter 7 for assessment tools). The guidance further explores effective methods of evaluating the intellectual functions of EL students independent from their emerging English skills (see chapter 10).

Taken together, misplacing EL students in special education points to the need for a more comprehensive understanding of how to recognize the signs of disabilities in students and their capacities to learn regardless of current English levels. It will take a large-scale shift in culture if the approaches demonstrated by San Diego and Minnesota are to become the new norm for EL special education evaluation. But it is vital to avoid systematically setting inappropriate expectations in place, ones that hinder ELs’ opportunities to realize their fullest potential.

Further Reading from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group:

A forthcoming post will examine classroom-level special education practices for EL students.


Tony Hanna was a Summer 2017 intern with the Education Policy program's Dual Language Learners National Work Group.