English Language Learners

Providing Special Education Services for Multilingual Learners

Educators can ensure that students get the support they need by implementing evidence-based practices that lead to successful learning.

April 17, 2023
Hero Images / iStock

The National Education Association has predicted that “[b]y 2025, 1 out of 4 children in classrooms across the nation will be an English language learner.” In fall 2019, multilingual learners comprised more than 10 percent of the U.S. student population. Some states, such as California and Texas, have a larger number of multilingual learners, over 18 percent of their total student enrollment. As the number of immigrants rises, so will the number of multilingual learners. And for decades, there have been concerns about multilingual learners being over- or underidentified as needing special education services. 

A Proactive and Preventive Framework Is Essential  

Although many states now require teacher candidates to complete at least one course about teaching multilingual learners, many teachers still need more knowledge about distinguishing between language differences and learning disability. Additionally, due to a shortage of special educators and related service providers, many teachers enter the profession before receiving any proper training. This raises concerns about the assessment process.

The Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a helpful and effective method that has been implemented across U.S. schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act defines MTSS as “a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making.” The goal is to have schools intervene early, so that evidence-based interventions can support students who are in need. 

MTSS focuses on the whole child. In addition to academic performance, schools address students’ behavioral, social, and emotional needs. Students’ cultural and linguistic needs are also taken into account.

Prioritize Data Collection and Family Engagement

To determine if multilingual learners are making appropriate progress, teachers must collect unbiased data. The data can be based on English language proficiency, benchmarks (exceeded, met, or not yet met), and summative assessments. Other types of data can include, but are not limited to, observational notes, behavioral and/or social and emotional learning scales, and information present in student files. 

MTSS also emphasizes the importance of collaboration. While professionals can offer their expertise, families also have valuable information to offer, such as differences between the school system in their home country and in the U.S., the student’s history of schooling, and specific cultural and linguistic needs. Additionally, the research-based interventions that educators use in the classroom (positive behavior interventions and supports) can also be utilized at home, so that students receive consistent help and don’t get confused.

Special Education Assessment Process, Types, and Other Tools

Once school teams (such as Student Success Teams) decide that multilingual learners need to be assessed to determine their special education eligibility, it’s important for school professionals to pay close attention to the assessment process, effective types of assessments, and other tools that can be used.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004  (IDEA 2004) emphasizes that schools are required to use “a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child, including information provided by the parent.” School districts often implement a norm-referenced test, such as the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, Fourth Edition (WIAT-4), or Woodcock-Johnson IV Tests of Achievement (WJ IV ACH). Educators should be aware that, beyond the standardized test mandated by their school district, IDEA 2004 guidelines also advocate for the use of additional tests to determine student strengths and needs. 

Standardized tests shouldn’t be the only type of tools that schools use to assess students. While publishers have evaluated their tests to check for reliability and validity, biased elements still exist. As the demographics of the U.S. population continue to change, these tests may not always reflect that, because they aren’t frequently revised. Thus, a combination of relevant formal and informal assessments should be used.

Language(s) to Use During Testing

When multilingual learners are first enrolled at schools, the usual practice is to identify their native language, determine their English proficiency level, and distinguish if they require language support. School professionals often rely on this information to determine if multilingual learners should be assessed in their native language or English. However, this can’t be the only way. 

School professionals should pay close attention to the second language acquisition development stages of their students and their two types of language proficiency: basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). 

When students are advanced in BICS, they shouldn’t be misinterpreted as being fluent. Students identified as multilingual learners may not be proficient in CALP in their native language. Many multilingual learners were born in the United States and/or don’t have substantial schooling in their parents’ native country, so assessing their CALP in their home language would be inappropriate. Examiners may need to utilize both the students’ native language and English during testing.

As of now, many of the available norm-referenced tests are only available in English. When it’s necessary to assess students in a language other than English, the school districts should use examiners who are fluent in the students’ language and understand their cultural background or hire interpreters to assist the English-speaking examiners.

Since many language interpreters don’t have formal training, schools must ensure that interpreters are well prepared and don’t jeopardize the data collection process. Furthermore, data collected during this process can’t be treated as standardized, since the administration process has been altered. Collecting additional sources of data (such as informal assessment data) can help validate the findings.

Be Careful When Interpreting Data

We’re fortunate nowadays that many publishers have online scoring systems that allow educators to easily generate score reports that show whether students are above, at, or below average. It’s important for educators to look beyond these classifications, specifically when score discrepancies are noted among similar skills. For instance, students who score high in decoding pseudo words are expected to do the same when decoding regular words. When they don’t, educators need to collect additional data and/or administer additional assessments to investigate why these discrepancies occur and identify student needs.

While limited English proficiency can’t be the determining factor for receiving special education services, there are many multilingual learners who require language support and also meet IDEA’s definition of being students with a disability. There’s often a misconception that since some multilingual learners already have a diagnosed disability, special education services should be provided only in English to avoid confusion.

Consistent research has indicated that providing instruction and support using both students’ native language and English is essential. This not only helps students‘ school performance, but also allows them to connect what they’ve learned to their day-to-day lives and their community.

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  • English Language Learners
  • Special Education

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