Assessment of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse
Students for Special Education Eligibility. ERIC Digest.
by Burnette, Jane
The assessment of students with cultural and linguistic differences
(CLD) has become one of special education's major issues. These students
are disproportionately represented in special education, a fact that leads
us to examine an assessment process that is difficult at best. There is
a shortage of personnel qualified to assess culturally and linguistically
diverse students (Flores, Lopez, & DeLeon, 2000) and the assessment
tools available are woefully inadequate. Teachers and other staff who feed
into this process are not provided with sufficient training. In addition,
schools are struggling with related issues that affect such assessments,
including how to involve parents of different cultures and languages who
may not be aware of the schools' expectations of them and their part in
the process, who may experience frustrations related to language or cultural
differences, and who may not have the time, transportation, or child care
capabilities to attend meetings scheduled at the school's convenience.
In recognition of these difficulties, a number of solutions and best
practices have been developed. In general, these practices can be organized
according to four principles:
* Convening a full, multidisciplinary assessment team -- Parents, educators,
and assessors are part of any assessment team. Other integral members of
the team include interpreters, bilingual educators, and a person who is
familiar with the student's culture and language.
* Using pre-referral strategies and interventions-If a student is having
difficulties, information should be gathered to determine whether these
difficulties stem from language or cultural differences, from a lack of
opportunity to learn, or from a disability.
* Determining the language to be used in testing-Assessment of language
dominance and proficiency should be completed before further testing is
conducted for students whose home language is other than English.
* Conducting a tailored, appropriate assessment of the child and environment-Ideally,
nonbiased, appropriate instruments should be combined with other sources
of information (observations, interviews) from a variety of environments
(school, home, community) to produce a multidimensional assessment.
A FULL, MULTIDISCIPLINARY ASSESSMENT TEAM
The 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA) requires that when a student is assessed, someone familiar with
the student's cultural and linguistic background must be part of the assessment
team. This person can be a valuable source of information about the culture
and the student, as well as providing a key to understanding the results
of test data and other aspects of the assessment process. If the child
being evaluated is bilingual, it is recommended that the team also include
a bilingual educator (McLean, 2000).
In addition, IDEA requires that parents of each child with a disability
be members of any group that makes decisions on the educational placement
of their child. Parents are crucial to understanding the student's background
and how the student functions in the home and in the community. Parents
can provide information that forms a framework for understanding the information
about the student, and the parent's perspective can be invaluable for accurately
interpreting data as well as for subsequent planning and instruction.
If an interpreter will be used during the assessment process, he or
she will need to understand the context and purpose of the discussions
in order to accurately translate the meaning of what was said. Prior to
meetings, it is important to acquaint the interpreter with the purpose
of the meeting and the topics that will be investigated, and after meetings,
to spend time reviewing results. Care must be taken to ensure that he or
she understands the technical language used. Interpreters should be encouraged
to ask for clarification when needed and to take notes. When assessors
work with interpreters, both need to be trained in conducting parent interviews.
Educators and assessors also need training to ensure accurate placement
decisions. Acquiring a second language can produce complex effects on the
child's language, cognitive and social development (McLean, 2000). In many
school districts, assessors have not been trained to understand cultural,
linguistic and experiential differences and their impact on a child's development
and test performance. A trained and experienced assessor develops a clinical
memory that serves as a resource of information and wisdom. The time spent
on training will help to ensure the accuracy of information gathered and
the quality of decisions. A number of team interaction models, such as
the Transdisciplinary Team Assessment model, can be used to help structure
and guide the team.
One key to reducing inappropriate placement in special education is
to reduce inappropriate referrals for evaluation. Educators should carefully
collect and analyze information on a CLD child prior to making a referral
for special education evaluation. Information about the child's culture
and development, and a comparison to the development of other children
from a similar background should be taken into account. It is also important
to determine if the student has had an opportunity to learn. This involves
examining both the quantity of schooling (whether the student has been
in school continuously and has received instruction) and the quality of
schooling (including teacher variables and instructional variables). If
the student's learning problems are related to either of these variables,
interventions should be directed to the identified variables (Leung, 1996).
Among teacher variables are experience, expectations, teaching style, and
track record with diverse students. Instructional variables include approaches
that support the active involvement of the student. Examples are reciprocal
teaching and instructional conversation that provides for "comprehensible
input"-instruction or conversation that is conceptually and linguistically
comprehensible to the learner.
To examine if prior instruction has facilitated or foiled the child's
learning, determine if
* lessons have shared goals,
* students and parents understand the goals of lessons,
* new learning is linked to prior knowledge,
* both cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies are taught,
* information is organized (sequentially, if possible)
* instruction is provided in phases, yet is nonlinear, and
* lessons take the child's development into account.
A variety of pre-referral strategies are available to educators, and
techniques such as curriculum-based assessment can be used to tell if instruction
has made a difference.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires a language assessment
of any child who may be limited English proficient, including an assessment
of the child's proficiency in English as well as in his or her native language
in order to distinguish language proficiency from disability needs. This
act states that an accurate assessment should include objective assessment
of reading, writing, speaking, and understanding. Further, IDEA requires
that "any materials and procedures used to assess a child with limited
English proficiency are selected and administered to ensure that they measure
the extent to which the child has a disability and needs special education
rather than measuring the child's English language skills."
AN APPROPRIATE ASSESSMENT TAILORED TO THE CHILD
The job of the assessment team is to develop a comprehensive, multidimensional
assessment tailored to the child being evaluated. Such an assessment includes
both formal testing (e.g., standardized tests) and informal testing (e.g.,
interviews and observations) in a variety of environments (e.g., home and
IDEA '97 requires that tests and other evaluation materials are "selected
so as not to be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis; and are provided
and administered in the child's native language or other mode of communication,
unless it is clearly not feasible to do so." Any formal tests that might
be used should be examined for cultural bias by a person from the cultural
group and should be administered by a person who is very knowledgeable
about the child's cultural group and speaks the child's language or dialect
(McLean, 2000). If modifications are required to make the instrument appropriate,
the test should be used to provide descriptive information only (rather
than scores), since modifications may invalidate the scoring of the test.
While valuable information can be obtained from standardized tests,
their nature and cultural specificity make them useful as only part of
an assessment. Informal testing, such as curriculum-based assessments,
observations, interviews, and play-based assessments can provide information
unavailable through standardized testing. When reviewing the assessment
information, the team should look for corroboration among the results of
the various types of assessment data. For example, if a student is said
to have a problem with "auditory processing," the problem should be evident
not only on tests, but also in the classroom and at home. For students
with limited English proficiency, the auditory processing problem should
be evident not only in English, but also in the student's native language
Once the assessment is completed, the group of qualified professionals
and the child's parents must determine if the child has a disability, and
move on to developing an instructional plan for the child regardless of
whether or not the child is considered disabled. While there is great concern
that children who do not have disabilities will be assessed as having them
because of cultural or linguistic differences, there are also cases in
which children who do have disabilities have gone unserved because of the
difficulty of distinguishing between cultural or linguistic differences
and disability. According to Leung (1966), "Assessment must be a means
to an end. As such, the ultimate quality indicator of assessment is how
directly the results aid in instructing the student."
Flores, J. Lopez, E., & DeLeon, J. (2000). Technical assistance
document for assessment and evaluation of preschool children who are culturally
and linguistically diverse. Santa Fe, NM: New Mexico State Department of
Education, Special Education Office.
Leung, B. P. (1996, Spring). Quality assessment practices in a diverse
society. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 28(3) 42-46.
McLean, M. (2000). Conducting child assessments. (Culturally And Linguistically
Appropriate Services Early Childhood Research Institute Technical Report
#2.) Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.