The current laws and policies regarding the assessment and placement of ELLs into special education are directed through the California Department of Education (CDOE). In addition, material and studies from academia have been recognized by the CDOE and have been included in current practice within our state (CDOE, 2012).
The California Department of Education (CDOE) enforces the laws, regulations and policies regarding both special education and the placement of the ELLs in special education programs, and it does so through each county's Office of Education, which serves as a clearinghouse for much of the material and practices of special education and ELL instruction. Within the CDOE's official documents, it includes sections on special education and ELL instruction. These sections include both federal and state laws, regulations, legal advisories, policies, and guidance for both special education and ELL instruction. Furthermore, it also regulates the assessment and placement of LEP, ELL, and other minorities into special education programs (CDOE, 2012; SCCOE, 2012).
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In specific terms, the state recognizes and includes methodology developed through academia regarding the placement of ELLs into special education programs. One example of this is through the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education's document "Preventing Inappropriate Referrals of Language Minority Students to Special Education." In this document, the authors described three types of learning disorders (NCBE, 2011).
Type I learning problems occur when students are placed into a classroom environment that does not accommodate their learning styles or individual differences. An example would include when ELL or LEP students require, but do not receive instruction in either their native language or English as a Second Language setting (Garcia & Ortiz, 2004).
Type II learning problems occur when ELL students are having difficulty learning due to numerous absences or constant moving around from one school to another. A prime example of this occurs amongst the children of migrant field workers, who often travel from one state to another, and in doing so encounter different state instructional practices for ELLs (Garcia & Ortiz, 2004).
Type III learning problems occur when a major disorder is present that disrupts the learning process. Often these types of students are handicapped and/or require special education instruction (Garcia & Ortiz, 2004).
This document goes on to describe the means for a proper assessment of ELLs into special education programs.
In California, the CDOE has directed that a school site administrator (preferably, the principal) take charge when a LEP or ELL student enters the referral phase of special education placement. This practice was adopted from studies released by the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE) through its release of "Determining Appropriate Referrals of English Language Learners to Special Education - a Self Assessment Guide for Principals." The CDOE and the local County of Office of Education provide the needed guidance for school site administrators. NABE's credentials and recognition stem from the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1997) (IDEA 97).
Later, the IDEA Local Implementation by Local Administrators ILIAD Partnership at the Council for Exceptional Children was formed. The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), along with 16 other national education organizations was officially named as a member of the ILIAD partnership. Many states, including California, have incorporated NABE's and ILIAD's findings into their own state education policies (CDOE, 2012).
The CDOE also published a "Handbook on Assessment and Evaluation in Early Childhood Special Education Programs." This document focuses on PK - third grade candidates for special education. It briefly discusses LEP and ELL students and how their L1 influences and possibly mistakenly hampers L2 instruction in English (CDOE, 2000).
This handbook recognizes that school personnel must evaluate the students' background in both their L1 and L2. It does not, however, provide detail for this process. However, through a state sponsored and CDOE recognized "Language Minority Assessment Project," one can find both legal provisions that address ELLs with special needs, as well as means for accessing ELLs for special education (LMA Project, 2005).
There are various laws and court cases that the CDOE has incorporated into state education policies that direct the placement of ELLs into special education programs. They are as follows:
Bilingual Education Act (1968) PL 90-247 "Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act." The BEA provides funding for innovative programs for LEP and ELL students. In 1984, the law was amended to allow for the maintenance of L1s for LEPs and ELLs with special needs (CDOE, 2012).
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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990) (PL 101-476). Basically, this law requires that evaluations for special education placement be conducted in a LEP's and ELL's L1. It also requires that the parents be notified in their L1 regarding the placement and the progress of their children in a special education program. In addition, all IEPs must demonstrate how modifications of methods, instruction, and materials are being put into place for ELL instruction (CDOE, 2012).
Diana vs. State Board of Education, CA 70RFT (N.D. Cal. 1970) prevents the placement of LEP and ELL students into special education based on tests given in English. This case, which was incorporated into CDOE policy, confirmed that Spanish-speaking students in Monterey County, California had been inaccurately classified as mentally retarded, based on IQ tests administered in English (CDOE, 2012).
Lastly, Larry P. vs. Riles, 793F, 2d 969 (9th C., 1984) initially addressed how African-American students had been inaccurately identified as educatable mentally retarded (EMR) based solely on an IQ test. The Larry P. case, a class-action suit, provided a legal precedent requiring that tests given to minority students include the same protections to Mexican-Americans. Moreover, while this case provides the same protections to African-American students as those that the Diana case provides Mexican-Americans, it, nonetheless, set the legal standards and the legal precedent to prevent cultural bias in testing for special education placement (CDOE, 2012).
The assessment and the referral of mainstream English-speaking students into special education is a complicated process. For LEP and ELL students, it is more difficult. Most mainstream English-speaking students have already been assimilated into the mainstream society at-large. Language and cultural differences are of no issue. However, even for a fully functional LEP or ELL student, one must not only adjust to a new language and a new cultural setting but also to the academic challenges that one faces on a day-to-day basis.
Our LEP and ELL students at-large are not a homogenic group. Instead, a number of factors vary from one student to another during the assessment process. While a student's L1 competency is examined thoroughly, such factors as the student's native culture and family life exist as variables for some, while for others they weigh in at a lower level of effect (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004).
A student's native culture coupled with the family environment must be fully understood in order to determine whether any of them factor-in during special education assessment. For example, an indigenous Native American from Guatemala may have a weak grasp of Spanish due to the use of an indigenous tongue spoken in the home setting. Many of these students lack exposure to formal education during their stay in the home country. Although such students can converse in Spanish with other students, it would be, however, a mistake to label Spanish as the L1. Moreover, many of these students, along with their families lack an adequate appreciation for formal education (Ortiz, 2001).
On the other hand, an ELL student from India, whose father is a medical doctor, might already have a full appreciation for formal education. Moreover, the student's parents might be resistant to any of their children entering special education. This could be based on the belief that their child might not achieve future success if placed in a non-traditional instructional environment such as can be found in special education.
During the referral process, a student's competency in the L1 must be measured. One must measure how well a student can communicate, write, and read at his or her age level in his or her L1. Next, one must identify what learning difficulties are occurring in English and if they intersect in the L1. For example, the L1 for many ELLs includes the Roman alphabet. However, others from Asian, Arabic, and Slavic nations use different forms of an alphabet; e.g., Chinese characters, Arabic script, and the Cyrillic alphabet. These are just a few considering that the Greek, Indochinese, and various parts of the former Soviet Union have entirely separate alphabet formats as well. The difference between alphabet formats is a legitimate obstacle and should not be considered during special education assessment (Garcia & Ortiz, 2004).
As mentioned earlier, if a strong support system does not exist within the family, a student will not only cease to progress in the L1 but also fall behind further in the L2.
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An understanding of an ELL's prior schooling environment in the home country must also be understood. This environment could have been either highly or loosely structured. Both types of environments could affect the student's behavior in an American school setting (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008).
Some countries progress quicker in mathematics and the sciences than they do in the American school system. Possibly, a student may have a higher level of competency in these areas and at times, such students have been found to act-out or be disruptive due to boredom. Not knowing this could lead to an inappropriate referral to special education.
A student's affective filter may also be high due to intimidation brought on by being in an L2 environment.
Lastly, many schools lack the adequate number of personnel capable of understanding the L2 acquisition process. This, coupled with the complex requirements for special education assessment, make the referral process even more difficult when it includes a LEP or ELL student.
The placement of ELL students into a special education program begins with a pre-referral process. Initially, a teacher or a parent might suspect that a student could be better served in a special education program. Once the pre-referral process begins at the school site, documentation of the student's difficulties and challenges are recorded. Certain factors must be included and considered if the pre-referral includes either a LEP or ELL student. These factors must be addressed before the referral process can go any further for LEP and ELL students. They are as follows:
Are the student's difficulties and challenges related to L2 acquisition? That is, are the student's problems related to language, culture, home life, and other environmental factors?
Is the school prepared to evaluate and to administer tests in the students L1, and are these tests NOT culturally biased?
Are the student's disabilities apparent? If not, other factors must be identified and addressed (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008).
Once the pre-referral process goes forward, a series of interventions will take place. They are as follows:
1.) Record, examine, and understand the student's under-performance in a general (mainstream) education environment.
2.) Consider modifications and accommodations to the classroom.
3.) Identify possible instructional interventions.
4.) Record student's progress after the above three have been either tested or implemented (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008).
The pre-referral process is meant to filter out and to prevent an inappropriate referral to special education. Again, it is up to both the teacher and the parents to work together in order to determine if educational or behavioral difficulties can be better corrected in a mainstream classroom environment. ESL and ELL learning resources must be implemented if a LEP or ELL student is involved. It is important to note that the referral process will be more streamlined if the student's disability is obvious and more apparent (Down Syndrome or other physical disabilities).
In California, both the referral and the placement of students into special education are based on the "Least Restrictive Environment" directive. That is, "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities (both physical and/or mental) are (to be) educated with children who are not disabled (LAUSD, 2012)."
The referral process can commence from various sources. Personnel from social services, the family, as well as school personnel can instigate an early referral for students between the grades K-3. Again, unless it is otherwise apparent, a thorough pre-assessment will have filtered out an inappropriate referral.
The purpose and the aim of the referral process are to identify specific disabilities and/or learning disorders that would require special education.
School personnel must determine what services are needed. Evaluations for special education include the participation of faculty members from both general and special education. In addition, if a speech impediment exists, a SLP should be included. Likewise, if a hearing problem is suspected, then an audiologist should also participate.
Evaluation of assessments relating to transitional services should occur for students at the high school level.
Information addressing a student's special education needs must include the input from the family. In California, the information progress is coordinated through a school site administrator (Preferably, the principal for grades K to 8). Again, as mentioned earlier, the CDOE has implemented the ILIAD concept of having school principals manage the referral committee. In my opinion, this should be viewed as a liability prevention measure. That is, many lawsuits have arisen in California based on inappropriate referrals to special education (IDEA, 2012). Therefore school districts, along with the CDOE can rest more assured that a full adherence to both state and federal laws are followed for appropriate placements in special education when the principal is at the helm of the referral and placement process.
Tapping into information sources is of the utmost importance. As can be seen in previous parts of this paper, enough cannot be said of the importance of gathering information about the student from outside the classroom. For this reason, it is important to have the full cooperation of the parents and the family in order to gather information regarding how well a student functions amongst and compared to his or her age group.
In addition, one must recognize anything that could have disrupted the student's normal growth and learning. Often, health problems and constant moving around will have disrupted schooling. This is commonly found amongst the children of migrant workers. These factors can affect both general and special education students. The answer to this and other factors could be best resolved through family contacts and family interviews.
A student's native culture and formal education in both the home country and the United States have been found to affect both general and special education students. For example, in California there are many students from war-torn countries in Central America. The lack of a formal social infrastructure has been found to prevent access to both schools and other learning resources. In addition, many undocumented immigrants, through fear of discovery, apprehension, and eventual deportation have withheld their children from schools in the United States. Moreover, there are ELL students who are forced to work alongside their parents as migrant agricultural harvesters. Thus, denying the student of formal, regular, and uninterrupted schooling (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008).
The answers to the aforementioned could be best found through information sources outside the classroom. Aside from the family, community volunteer groups and community organizations can also serve as prime informational sources. For this reason, it is recommended that a means for liaison be well in place prior to any future need for utilization.
In-school data, which has been gathered over time, can also serve as an informational source for assessment of the student, and the longer the time span, the better that such data could reveal a student's rate of learning as compared with other students of the same age group.
Formal testing through standardized and language proficiency tests can provide quantitative data. Notes, and observations, coupled with the comparison of the student with other ELLs of the same age group, could provide much-needed qualitative data (IDEA, 2008).
There are countless means to make adequate adjustments to the classroom in order to better serve ELL students. At the top of the list should be the teacher's ability to communicate in an ELL's L1. However, a paraprofessional proficient in the students' L1 should be brought in if the teacher lacks competency in the students' L1.
Other means should be sought out if your ELL students' L1 is other than Spanish. Often schools have sought out both paid and volunteer positions through local community groups when there were no teachers or paraprofessional on-site who speak/spoke the students' language, and surprisingly a good many community members are willing to volunteer, knowing that a volunteer position could later open up into a paid position.
In addition, many schools have colleges and universities nearby with college-age students who could tutor and/or work one-on-one with ELL students.
Again, liaisons with both community groups and colleges/universities should already be in place before there is a need for utilization.
In addition to the above, the following adjustments should be made to better serve ELL students.
The teacher should use a variety of ways of instruction. Teachers should use visual, oral, and kinesthetic means to reach all learning styles.
Separate content from language objectives. Intersect both by writing on the board, reading aloud, and referring to both throughout the lesson.
Use various formats for testing. For example, test orally. Fully explain and give directions for each section of the test by providing examples and/or modeling expected outcomes, and keep the test as short as possible.
Slowly and thoroughly give instructions and directions. Stick to a specific area without generalized crossover.
Utilize past learned knowledge while presenting new material.
Organize instruction and testing in a logical format, allowing students to easily understand and move more efficiently through the material.
Use graphic organizers and regalia. Also, have students maintain portfolios/notes that can be used to fall back on for past-learned knowledge. In addition, the teacher will be better able to monitor a student's progress and understanding by regularly reviewing the students' portfolio/notes.
Utilize and praise your students' strengths; play down their weaknesses.
Have students work in groups or pairs. Pair-up ELL students who have strong L2 skills with beginning ELL students.
Allow and encourage ELL students to scaffold in their L1.
(Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008)