ERIC Identifier: ED329131
Publication Date: 1991-03-00
Author: Olson, Paula
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Referring Language Minority Students to Special Education.
Specialists assume that approximately the same proportion of very bright
individuals, cognitively limited individuals, language handicapped individuals,
etc., will be found in any population. Statistically, about 12% of the
language minority population in the United States may require special education.
In some school districts, language minority students are overrepresented
in special education, while in other districts, and in certain categories
of special education, there is an underrepresentation of handicapped language
minority students. While special education is not the only option available
to language minority learners with special needs, it is imperative that
these students be identified and given access to the full range of special
education and related services to meet their needs.
THE PREREFERRAL PROCESS
Prereferral is a screening and intervention process that involves identifying
problems experienced by students in the regular classroom, identifying
the source of the problems (student, teacher, curriculum, environment,
etc.), and taking steps to resolve the problems in the regular classroom.
The prereferral process seeks to eliminate any unnecessary and inappropriate
referrals to special education. Most inappropriate referrals can be avoided
by implementing a prereferral intervention process through which teachers
are helped to remediate the problems the child is experiencing in the context
of the classroom. Often, this is done in conjunction with other colleagues
and school support personnel. One prereferral method uses Teacher Assistance
Teams (TATs)--groups of teachers selected by their peers to facilitate
prereferral problem-solving. The TAT and the referring teacher meet to
discuss problems the student is having, think of possible solutions, and
develop a plan of action to be implemented by the referring teacher. Follow-up
meetings are held to discuss the effectiveness of the proposed interventions,
and to develop other strategies if necessary. Ultimately, the TAT decides
whether the student should be referred to special education (Garcia, &
In addition to reducing unnecessary referrals to special education,
the prereferral process leads teachers to design and implement educational
interventions that are often effective in the least restrictive environment,
the regular classroom (Benavides, 1987; Mazur et al., 1989).
ASSESSMENT AND REFERRAL
The referral of a student to special education should be an indication
that all other avenues have been explored, and that a conclusion has been
reached that the child's needs cannot be met by the regular education program.
It may also indicate the presence of a handicapping condition (Garcia &
Ortiz, 1988). Confirmation of a handicap and identification of its specific
nature are provided by a comprehensive assessment of the student. All referrals
of language minority students to special education should include the results
of tests in the child's native language and in English, and all records
and reports on which the referral is based. Verification should be provided
of the appropriateness of the school's curriculum, the qualifications and
experience of the teacher, and the appropriateness of instruction provided
to the student (continuity, proper sequencing, the teaching of prerequisite
Documentation of the child's problems across settings should also be
included, along with evidence that the child's difficulties are present
in both languages, and that he or she has not made satisfactory progress
despite having received competent instruction (Garcia & Ortiz, 1988).
However, because many of these children are losing or have not fully developed
first language skills, it may be difficult to ascertain that the learning
difficulty exists across languages.
To ensure access to special programs, yet not use special education
as a dumping ground for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, it is
imperative that LEP students be tested thoroughly. Every possible formal
and informal assessment procedure should be used to determine the student's
level of functioning and possible handicapping condition. Current research
on language development and second language acquisition should be taken
into account, including research on neurolinguistics, cognitive development,
bilingualism, and psychological functioning, as well as research on resettlement
and cultural and emotional adjustment. The English-as-a-second-language
(ESL) teacher, bilingual education teacher, and classroom teachers who
work regularly with the learner will have the most important school-based
observations and input in the assessment process. This, coupled with input
from parents or guardians, becomes the foundation for the assessment process.
CHARACTERISTICS AND BEHAVIORS OF LANGUAGE MINORITY STUDENTS IN NEED
OF SPECIAL EDUCATION
LEP students who have major disorders that interfere with the teaching
and learning process should be referred to special education. These students
may have a handicapping condition such as disturbance, physical and health
impairments, multiple handicaps, or specific learning disabilities such
as dyslexia. Even with intervention, these students experience significant
difficulties in the regular classroom. It is important to distinguish,
however, between the aforementioned handicapping conditions, and the difficulties
experienced by non-handicapped language minority children as a result of
their limited proficiency in English. "Linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic
and other background differences are not considered handicapping conditions"
(Garcia, & Ortiz, 1988, p.2).
Difficulties may be evident in both languages or in one or all four
of the language skill areas: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Some students may have difficulty processing language, and may not comprehend
oral input; they may look puzzled when questioned, or may respond with
completely irrelevant responses or with garbled speech. An auditory memory
or auditory processing deficit may be evident. Other students may have
significant difficulties learning to read. Those students who may have
visual deficits may display weaknesses in their written work: inadequate
spacing between words and many misspellings. Little sound/symbol correspondence
may exist between the word written and the word intended, or the student
may have difficulty writing on the line and may not discriminate the size
The difficulties experienced by some language minority students may
not be entirely language based. Referral to special education may also
be necessary for behavioral, emotional, cognitive, neurological, or sensorial
ASSESSMENT: THE OVER-IDENTIFICATION VS. UNDER-IDENTIFICATION DILEMMA
Public Law 94-142 states that all handicapped children in the United
States are guaranteed the right to a free public education, to an individualized
education program and related services that meet their specific needs,
to due process (assuring that handicapped students are properly assessed,
classified, and placed in appropriate programs), to education in the least
restrictive environment, to tests that are not culturally discriminatory,
and to multi-dimensional assessment. "Public Law 94-142 requires that state
and local educational agencies ensure that test and evaluation materials
be provided and administered in the child's native language, and, among
other things, that the child be assessed in all areas related to the suspected
disability" (Benavides, 1987). The handicapped LEP child has a right to
the same special educational services as other handicapped students.
The assessment and placement process is not a simple task. Legal requirements
can cause difficulties for districts or schools seeking to implement procedures
for assessing LEP children. These requirements can be complex or require
a certain level of prior knowledge or expertise. The misdiagnosis of LEP
students for special education has led to a number of lawsuits and court
orders (Diana v. California State Board of Education). "Fear of litigation
by school districts can lead to the under-identification of minority pupils
in special education. Data collected by the California State Department
of Education (CSDE) pupil count verifies the trend of shifting from over-identification
of minorities in special education to under-identification" (Vasquez-Chairez,
1988). Bergin (1980) maintains that students from culturally and linguistically
different backgrounds are subjected to various forms of bias. In the past,
such bias led to referring LEP students to special education for reasons
other than those making them eligible for special services. "In recent
years, possibly as an overreaction to the identified problems of misdiagnosis,
a different problem has surfaced. Limited English proficient youngsters
who typically (and, presumably, legitimately) would have been identified
as needing special education services have not been receiving those services"
Direct attention to evaluation issues is essential in order to provide
quality education to all students. "It is the objective of fair and appropriate
assessment to document any potential difficulties and then to differentiate
between those due to intrinsic disorders and those due to cultural and
linguistic differences and other intrinsic factors. Only through this process
can the appropriate assessment, identification, and programming of exceptional
LEP students versus nonexceptional LEP students be accomplished" (Kretschmer,
1990). Hamayan and Damico (1990) suggest that the following questions need
to be considered in bilingual special education testing:
* How can the temporary difficulties LEP students face in learning to
function in a nonproficient language be distinguished from more permanent
perceptual and cognitive deficiencies that interfere with learning?
* How can the abilities and disabilities of bilingual students be evaluated
when students are not proficient in the language of testing?
* How can the abilities and disabilities of students be accurately assessed
when the students are unfamiliar with the social norms underlying tests?
* What types of assessment not only satisfy the requirements of the
law but also give service providers clear guidelines as to the components
of instruction that a student needs?
Students who have disorders that interfere with the teaching and learning
process should be referred to special education programs that will allow
them to develop the skills necessary for full participation in society.
However, it is vital to distinguish students who are experiencing difficulties
in school because of limited English skills from students who are handicapped.
Inappropriate referral to special education can be stigmatizing and costly,
and can inhibit limited-English-proficient students from achieving their
full academic potential.
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