Magazine Feature

Margins of Error

The needs of limited English proficiency students put special education assessment to the test.

Tony Guisasola starts his bus route before daylight in Ellijay, a town of 1,600 in the wooded mountains of north Georgia. Later in the day, he teaches math and science to homebound middle school children.

In addition to his transportation and teaching duties, he administers and interprets screening tests for special education services in Ellijay schools.

The son of a Cuban-born North Carolinian, Guisasola also frequently serves as a Spanish-language interpreter for teachers, students and parents. But the special education screening tests he administers are in English only, which yields unreliable results for students whose English is limited.

"I speak fluent Spanish," Guisasola says, "but I don't have the instruments for assessing the needs of Spanish-speaking students. Informal translations don't work. My wife, Becky, is an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher. It breaks our hearts to see these children not getting the level of services they deserve."

If a Spanish-speaking student requires psychological evaluation, a specialist must be brought in from Atlanta, at a cost of several hundred dollars. Ellijay's budget constraints weigh heavily against such consultations, he says.

Tony and Becky's combination of responsibilities gives them a unique perspective on a problem that many observers say is growing at an alarming rate across the United States: inadequate coordination between special education and English-language support services.

Language-minority students are the fastest-growing population in U.S. public schools. During the 1990s, their numbers rose from 8 million to 15 million. These include new immigrant students as well as students from Native American and indigenous backgrounds.

Research shows that the distribution of "extremely bright," "average" and "cognitively limited" individuals is similar across cultural segments of the population. Accordingly, about 12% of language-minority students may be expected to have learning or emotional disabilities.

Education researchers have long recognized that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are disproportionately represented in special education programs.

But careful scrutiny tells a more complicated story for language-minority students. Often they are overrepresented in some special education programs and underrepresented in others.

In a number of high-profile cases, misdiagnosis of bilingual students for special education has led to costly litigation and improper education for students.

In Diana v. California State Board of Education, for example, a Spanish-speaking student in Monterey County, Calif., had been placed in a class for mildly mentally retarded students because she had scored low on an IQ test given to her in English. The court ruled that Spanish-speaking children should be retested in their native language to avoid errors in placement.

As a result, many school districts have become extraordinarily sensitive to charges of overidentification — sensitive enough, in some cases, to err in the opposite direction. As a result, language minority students with very real special education needs are being left behind.

Because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees children in the United States the right to any necessary special educational services in the least restrictive environment possible, state and local education officials are required to consider cultural and linguistic factors when developing policies and procedures for special education assessment.

But a host of issues make this mandate difficult for many districts to fulfill, especially in rural areas or small towns like Ellijay.

Judy Smith-Davis, of Vanderbilt University's Alliance Project — which works with minority institutions of higher education to increase special education personnel from historically under-represented populations — points to the changing nature of immigration as an underlying problem.

Nearly 10% of the U.S. population is now immigrants, and 9 million of them are children. In the past, says Smith-Davis, new immigrants settled first in urban areas, where school resources existed for new immigrant students.

Today, however, food processing and agricultural industries draw many immigrant families to scattered, rural areas where special educational resources for language minorities are lacking.

Ellijay, for example, has attracted scores of Mexican and Central American families in recent years. Ellijay schools are now grappling with an unprecedented challenge: how to educate students from diverse cultures, many of whom do not speak English when they arrive.

Across the country, meeting the needs of LEP students is made more complex by economic conditions. Census Bureau statistics show that the children of immigrants are significantly poorer than the children of native-born Americans. Close to 30% of immigrant children live in poverty versus 16% of the children of native-born Americans.

Ohio State University's Suha Al-Hassan and Ralph Gardner note that this poverty compounds other factors that can contribute to the need for special education services.

Many immigrant parents work in jobs that do not provide family health insurance, so prenatal and neonatal care may be deficient or altogether absent. Even in states that provide screenings for educational disabilities to all children, recent immigrants may be unaware that they are entitled to this service.

Furthermore, poverty and the emotional/physical trauma that may have prompted a family to seek refuge in the United States in the first place may affect a child's special educational needs.


Creative Puzzlers

The Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) is a Virginia-based organization that monitors administration of special education services and trains parents of special-needs children to be their own best advocates.

In a 2000-2001 project aiming to help Latino families in Virginia negotiate the winding special education referral process, PEATC's Latino Outreach Specialists made nearly 400 contacts and served a total of 64 families.

"As word has spread about our services," says executive director Cherie Takemoto, "the demand keeps increasing."

PEATC has also branched out to work with parents in Maryland and conducted workshops in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

The PEATC initiative revealed disturbing patterns, says Takemoto. Schools sometimes shy away from referring LEP students for "mild disabilities" such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or learning disabilities [LD], she explains.

But when students with such disabilities do not receive special education services, they fall further behind. Additional problems set in, such as failure to do homework, truancy, discipline issues, suspension and even expulsion.

"When the schools finally take action," says Takemoto, "too often it is to label the child as having an emotional disability."

This leads, she finds, to a greater number of LEP students being diagnosed for mild mental retardation and emotional disability. The PEATC staff observed no corresponding overrepresentation for LD and ADHD for language-minority students.

A 2002 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project (see Resources sidebar) identified a set of interacting factors that contribute to disproportionate numbers of LEP students in special education programs.

From the outset, unconscious biases can affect decisions about "whom to test, what test to use, when to use alternative tests, how to interpret student responses, and what weight to give results from specific tests."

While this bias does not reflect the efforts of many teachers who go to bat for LEP students, examples have also shown how results of correctly or incorrectly administered tests and the presence or absence of advocates can make or break a student's career.

There are as yet no standardized instruments or federal or state criteria to assess special needs of LEP students.

With a few exceptions, schools of education are not training future teachers in both special education and ESL instruction. Given the "paucity" of dual training, Nancy Cloud of Rhode Island College notes in a study that professionals are left to find their own training opportunities at conferences and workshops and, from these haphazard events, must piece together the elements that formulate appropriate practice.

At George Mason University in Virginia, however, Eva Thorp and her colleagues are charting a new path for teacher preparation that addresses the complex needs of culturally, linguistically and ability-diverse young children and their families.

The Unified Transformative Early Education Model (UTEEM), which Thorp co-directs, offers teachers multiple licensure in early childhood education, early childhood special education, ESL and multicultural education.

The two-year graduate-level program fully integrates coursework in language development, assessment of culturally diverse student populations, family assessment and curriculum development for diverse learners.

A series of four internships in daycare, pre-school and school settings prepares future teachers to know the peoples and cultures in their community. Going shopping with families or gathering family stories (as opposed to a clinical checklist) help graduates understand how families make decisions, what their hopes and priorities are.

For instance, the better teachers understand their students' various language exposure, students' level of proficiency in the primary language and in English, and their prior education experience, the more equipped are they to distinguish between English language skill delay and language disability.

Bringing parents into the process is key to effective service. But that can be challenging because of the power differentials that exist between parents and school authorities, especially if parents are recent immigrants or lack formal education.

Recent immigrants may not be aware of their children's rights. Further, undocumented parents may be reluctant to step forward and demand special education services for their children.

Parents may not fully understand the nature of a child's disability and the corresponding special educational needs.

Ana Avenzini, PEATC's outreach specialist, explains, "For many in the Latino community, if they have a child with a disability in their own country, they receive no assistance. Under this frame of reference, they think the child will be 'put out' of school."

Andrea Ghetzler, a special education teacher and administrator from Skokie, Ill., points out that some cultures are more accepting of developmental disabilities than others.

"In a lot of cultures," she says, "there is no such thing as special education,... it's thought of as 'mental retardation.'"

If a student is thought to require special education services, Ghetzler's first challenge is sometimes to persuade parents to consent to assessment. In some cases, parents fear that their child will be institutionalized and prefer to ignore or hide the problem.

A significant part of the educator's or advocate's job, then, consists of explaining the nature of special education to parents and bridging cultural differences regarding disabilities. It is a process that requires building trust over time.

It takes a village - educators, school support personnel such as psychologists and speech/language therapists, policy-makers and parents working together - to fine-tune special education and English-language support services for LEP students.

It means developing appropriate assessment instruments, consistent guidelines and integrative teacher training that take into account students' linguistic, cultural diversity as well as their general cognitive and learning development.

It takes commitment and resources - no less - so that no student would be mislabeled or fall through the cracks.


"It is important to [ ] both ways before you cross the street." Noelle Jaddaoui’s 1st- and 2nd-grade ESL class at Walker Elementary School in Skokie, Ill., knit their brows for a moment before hands begin to shoot up.


Kuong, a 1st-grader from Vietnam offers his answer tentatively: "Both?" Sitting next to him, Romeo, a 2nd-grader, also from Vietnam, shakes his head slightly: "Look." As if on cue, the 12 students erupt in a chorus of ding-ding-dings. This morning the class will add five new words to the Word Wall, a large, alphabetically arranged board at one end of the classroom.


Of the 12 students in Jaddaoui’s ESL class, three receive some form of special education services. Because they spend so much time with LEP (limited-English-proficient) students, ESL teachers are often the first to suspect that a student may need additional help.


When students struggle with language acquisition, a basic conundrum for ESL teachers is to disentangle language barriers from the learning process. In Jaddaoui’s words, it’s figuring out "which came first, the word or the thought of the word."


To solve that puzzle, a teacher has to be part educator and part detective, which is exactly what Andrea Ghetzler, director of the ESL program at Old Orchard Middle School (Skokie District 68), did in the case of a 6th-grader from Russia who struggled to learn English.


When she raised the issue during a parent-teacher conference, the child’s father told her the boy had experienced similar difficulty learning Russian. With that information, Ghetzler was able to call together the boy’s teachers and school support personnel to devise a plan that would bring together ESL and special education resources.


The district’s ESL department serves students with 42 different primary languages. Faced with this challenge, Skokie schools enlist community support. For students whose first language is Russian, for example, school administrators call on a Russian-speaking psychologist at the local Jewish community center.


Because Skokie and Evanston school districts are small enough, teachers, parents and counselors are able to respond fairly quickly when a student shows signs of difficulty. In Skokie/Evanston (joint) District 65, before a referral for special education testing can be made, a CARE (Child Action: Resource and Evaluation) team meets to discuss the student and the perceived problem.


CARE members may include a speech-language clinician, a school psychologist, a social worker, a learning-resource professional, the school principal and an ESL teacher. If the team decides that an assessment may be appropriate, they then consult with the child’s parents, who must give consent before an assessment can go forth.


Beatrice Guttierez, a bilingual school psychologist in District 65, says that some school districts consider it easier to place students in special education classes than to address the underlying causes of a child’s learning difficulties. For Guttierez, though, there is a clear trade-off.


Although special education can provide important assistance, it makes for a more restrictive environment. Instead of placing students in special education programs, some students in Gutierrez’s district receive "related services" in a mainstream environment. These may include, for instance, an IEP (individual education plan) for speech and language, services from a social worker and counseling from a school psychologist.


In addition, a student who does not require the entire range of special education services might be a candidate for "resource services," which includes a limited number of hours each week with special education teachers.


At Senn High School in Chicago, more than 400 students receive ESL/bilingual service. According to Kathy Koshaba, who teaches ESL and directs the school’s Multicultural Resource Center, the latest school census identifies over 70 countries of origin and more than 50 primary languages spoken by its students.


Spanish is by far the most common language spoken by ESL students at Senn. Urdu and Vietnamese come in second and third. (Vietnamese used to be the second-most-common language, but the community has shrunk as immigration numbers dwindled.) Senn also has substantial numbers of Amharic-speaking students from Ethiopia and French-speaking students from Africa, as well as students from Bosnia, Indonesia and Kosovo.


Like their counterparts in Evanston and Skokie, Koshaba and her colleagues at Senn are acutely aware of the issues of disproportionate representation of language-minority students in special education. When a new immigrant student struggles in school, she points out, "it can be difficult to determine if it’s a case of culture shock, a language deficit or something else."


The stark contrast between urban Chicago and their home-countries (or communities) can cause some students to feel lonely and depressed, which affects their school performance.


In Chicago, teachers are required to keep "anecdotal records" for each student. If a student seems to be struggling academically or otherwise, school officials can turn to these records to look for potential causes.


The Office of Specialized Services (Chicago Public School system) has issued guidelines aimed at helping educators navigate the difficult straits. A resource manual covers every aspect of the referral process (ranging from student health issues to assessments of the child’s learning environment). It also outlines assessment procedures aimed at eliminating cultural biases.


Like every school district, Chicago faces the difficulty of recruiting qualified teachers to provide ESL and special education services. The city also faces a retention problem as teachers leave for the higher pay of suburban school districts.


Another challenge is the ebb and flow of populations. In a city as large and dynamic as Chicago, the movement of ethnic communities into and out of neighborhoods, and changing enrollments of different groups at area schools, creates new challenges for ESL and special education teachers, who must take into account the linguistic and cultural mosaic of the schools where they teach.

Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—space is limited!

Sign Up!