17 – Disproportionate Representation of English Language Learners in Special Education

Cari Pankewich

The landscape of Saskatchewan schools is changing.  The Ministry of Education indicates that in September 2017, 9.2% of Saskatchewan students in Grades 1-12 were receiving EAL support. School divisions have noted that even newcomer students who arrive with some English language skills require EAL support to reach adequate proficiency levels for school purposes (ECUR 415 Module 1 Slide Presentation). EAL students enter school with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds that are different from their mainstream peers. This diversity can be misunderstood in the classroom context, resulting in disproportionate placement numbers in Special Education. This paper aims to provide information regarding the reasons that EAL leaners are disproportionately represented in Special Education, how this placement affects EAL students, and how teachers can move toward a more balanced view of their EAL students.

Difference or Disability

In the general population, about 12% will have a learning disability whether they speak one language or several, whether they speak English or another language. However, the same percentage of ELLs are not necessarily identified as having a learning disability and have been both under- and over-identified (Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez, & Damino, 2007). Sullivan (2011) suggests that understanding the underlying issues regarding the disproportionate numbers of ELLS in special education requires an examination of current practices and willingness to explore new ways of defining educational practices.  Disproportionately classifying ELLs as learning disabled will not aid ELLs, as many of their struggles are based on language development.

Traditionally, guidelines for identification of students with special needs have been designed for a monolingual, mainstream population. Such guidelines put culturally and linguistically diverse students at risk for either over-referral or under-referral to special education (Oritz, 1998). Collier (2004) explains that the differences that ELLs may display in the classroom can be mistaken for disability. Teachers need to be aware that although social and everyday English can develop quite quickly in ELLs, research suggests that it can take at least five to seven years to develop the academic and language skills of their monolingual peers (Cummins, 1995, 1997, 2000). Adolescent ELLs may face more challenges in this respect and struggle with academic subjects due to lack of adequate academic language skills.  Cummins (1995) expresses concern about Special Education placements, explaining that they are not a viable option for the amount of time that a student may need support in mastering the academic aspects of English.

Teachers’ Limited Understanding of Language Learning

EAL learners bring with them a range of skills and strengths.  What they do not have are strong English skills. “We must make sure that we remember what they do have, and not always focus on their weaknesses, namely a lack of English” (Helmer and Eddy, p. 71).

Confronted with a struggling English language learner, many classroom teachers can be confused by the student’s lack of academic progress. Often the teachers faced with this situation turn to special education for assistance because they are unsure of how to adapt their English language curriculum to meet the student’s needs. They are also uncertain about how to determine whether EAL students are experiencing problems due to learning disabilities or due to their limited English language proficiency. They may believe their only recourse is to refer the student for an assessment and special education placement. Therefore, placements are not due to developmental delays but the inability to follow the regular streamed program due to language barriers.

According to Collier (2004) and Cummins (1995, 1997, 2000), there are many stages of acculturation when a child is learning new academic language and is in a new setting.  Not behaving and not attending to the task at hand is typical for a beginner ELL. In some cases, students may not speak at all for the first year. Each ELL reacts differently when starting school, but these behaviors are usually due to limited English proficiency.  As students become acculturated, they understand more in the classroom.


Due to the language and cultural differences, the reliability and validity of standardized tests may be affected. As a result of these differences, many ELLs may be inappropriately identified as having a disability. Assessments used in schools should be accessible and free of cultural and linguistic biases.  However, these assessments are designed for English-speaking mainstream students, and are often beyond the academic reach of English language learners (Cummins 1995, 2000). The use of standardized tests does not adequately demonstrate an English language learner’s cognitive ability, therefore the sole use of these tests to make placement and educational decisions is ineffective and inappropriate.  As Klingner and Harry (2006) posit, schools should not rely only on standardized test scores, but should perform other alternative assessments to obtain the overall picture of the English language learner’s abilities.

According to Ortiz et al. (2011), in order to make special education referral decisions, educators must first collect baseline data that demonstrates English language learners’ language and literacy skills and tracks their progress in over time. Teachers must also systematically assess and track English language learners’ reading skills and development in areas such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Through monitoring progress in these areas, teachers can determine if English language learners have not made expected progress using culturally and linguistically responsive interventions, which may then lead to a consideration for special education (Ortiz & Yates, 2001).

Cultural Factors

Much research has been conducted regarding cultural and socio–economic factors as contributing to the disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs (Degato-Gaitan,1990; Delpit,1995; Gee,1996; Heath,1983; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez,1992; and Moll & Greenburg,1990). This research has demonstrated that when students and teachers are knowledgeable about each other’s culture, learning is enhanced. Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez (1992) observed that cultural practices shape thinking processes; therefore, in order to enable students to develop higher order thinking, students’ cultural background should be incorporated in school learning.

Research on minority family literacy practices (Delgato-Gaitan, 1990; Heath, 1983; Li, 2006) found that literacy practices of the culturally diverse are often very different from the mainstream, in terms of beliefs and practices about instruction and parental involvement, which may conflict with mainstream teaching models. North American models of teaching and learning tend to be teacher-centered and may disregard the autonomy of immigrant students and families with regard to what they are able to contribute to the school and learning. In reality, these families have vast knowledge bases from their homes and communities (Moll, 2004; Moll, Amanti, & Gonzalez, 1992; Moll & Greenburg, 1990)

Mainstream parents do not necessarily have more interest in their child’s education, but have better resources to mediate the school system to help their children. These resources may include education, income, status, and social network. Despite the inequity of resources, schools tend to ask for very similar types of behavior, although resources are not equally available (Lareau, 2000, p. 8).  Education is most often grounded in mainstream culture; teachers often filter curriculum through their own mainstream cultural backgrounds and teach the way they were taught. The primary discourse of students from mainstream backgrounds is often similar to that of the school, as their mother language (English) is used by the teacher in instruction.

Effects of misrepresentation

The overrepresentation of ELLs in special education is complex, with a variety of factors contributing to the dilemma. Disproportionality refers to “the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category” (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999, p. 198). According to the American Psychological Association Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a child is not eligible for special education services if the determining factor is due to limited English proficiency. Consequently, if a student is inappropriately placed in special education, it could result in underachievement. Hence, if steps are not taken to properly regulate how referrals are made, there will be serious consequences. If the ELLs needs are not those best suited to special education, the remediation is futile. This situation is partly because the student might not suffer from a real cognitive processing problem, and as such, the placement will not be able to solve the problem if the issue is due to cultural differences between the child and the school (Ortiz, 1991). Moreover, research suggests that labelling also leads to stigmatization, segregation and low self-esteem (Oriz, et al., 2011). The misplacement often predisposes students to other risk factors like learned helplessness, low academic performance, disruptive behaviour, and drop-out, which reinforces the designation. The more compelling reason for determining proper placement for ELLs is that we must ensure the most effective learning environment for these students. If a student is having difficulties in school because of second language issues, the best support for that student would come from expanding proficiency in English as a second language, and not from special education interventions (Damico & Hamayan, 1992).

Moving Forward

In summary, this paper aimed to examine why there is a disproportionate number of ELLs that are being referred to Special Education programs.  The influx of immigrants to our province means that there must be timely education on the parts of educators to understand the factors which affect language learning. We know that the acculturation process can mimic certain academic delays, therefore, students must be allowed time to learn language. Disproportionate number of referrals can be due to misunderstanding of difference or disability, lack of understanding about the needs of EAL students, skewed assessment practices, and cultural mismatches.  The effects of misrepresentation can include stigmatization, learned helplessness, and inappropriate learning programs and goals.  Through education and increased understanding, teachers can become more culturally responsive in their teaching and allow for the inclusion of varied learning needs. Teachers can work to create positive classroom climates for all students by incorporating inclusive teaching practices such as culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is based on the socio-cultural understandings of learning. Socio-cultural perspectives of learning see learning as participatory, relational, and interactive, and ask educators to relate the practices of school to practices which exist within the wider community (Moll, & Greenburg, 1990).  Through the use of culturally responsive methods of teaching, educators are encouraged to examine their own understandings about learning and culture, which may be biased. Understandings such as the official structure of the classroom, student teacher interaction, lesson transmission, and curriculum and hidden curriculum content which exists within the classroom: “In culturally responsive teaching, knowledge is viewed passionately and critically, and all biases are unmasked for what they are and are open for discussion” (Quiocho & Ulanoof, 2009, p. 9).



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