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English Language Learners with Disabilities: Identification and Other State Policies and Issues
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By Chandra Keller-Allen

August 2006


 

 

 

Project Forum 

National Association of State Directors of Special Education 

(NASDSE) 

1800 Diagonal Road - Suite 320 

Alexandria, VA 22314

 

This report was supported by the U.S. Department of Education (Cooperative 

Agreement No. H326F050001).  However, the opinions expressed herein do not 

necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official 

endorsement by the Department should be inferred. 


Note: There are no copyright restrictions on this document; however, please credit 

the source and support of federal funds when copying all or part of this material. 


Project Forum at National Association of State Directors of 

Special Education (NASDSE) is a cooperative agreement 

funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the 

U.S. Department of Education. The project carries out a 

variety of activities that provide information needed for 

program improvement and promote the utilization of research 

data and other information for improving outcomes for 

students with disabilities.  The project also provides technical 

assistance and information on emerging issues and convenes 

small work groups to gather expert input, obtain feedback and 

develop conceptual frameworks related to critical topics in 

special education. 


This document, along with many other Forum publications, can be downloaded from the Project Forum at NASDSE web address: 

 

http://www.projectforum.org 

 

To order a hard copy of this document or any other Forum publications, please contact Nancy Tucker at 

NASDSE, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 320, Alexandria, VA  22314 

Ph: 703-519-3800 ext. 326 or Email: nancy.tucker@nasdse.org 

 

 

Acknowledgements 

 

Project Forum would like to thank the following individuals who provided input on the interview protocol and reviewed an earlier draft of this document. 

 

Annette Zehler, Senior Associate, Development Associates, Inc. 

Paul Hopstock, Senior Associate, Development Associates, Inc. 

Tim D’Emilio, Senior Education Research Specialist, Office of English Language Acquisition, US Department of Education 

Cherie Takemoto, Executive Director, Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center 

 

Additionally, special thanks to the following state staff members who contributed their time to provide 

information and input to Project Forum staff. 

 

Alaska 

Arthur Arnold, State Director of Special Education 

Sharon Schumacher, SIG Director and Special Projects Manager, State Special Education Office 

Patricia Adkisson, Program Manager, Division of Teaching and Learning Support, Bilingual/Title III 

 

Arkansas 

Susan Branon, Administrator, State Program Development, Special Education Division 

Andre Guerrero, ELL Coordinator, Arkansas Department of Education  

Ron Tolson, Office of Professional Licensure 

 

California 

Margaret Benavides, Special Education Consultant, Procedural Safeguards and Referral Service Unit, Special Education Division 

Marilyn Errett, Government Relations, Commission on Teacher Credentialing 

 

Florida 

Ginny Chance, Program Director, Program Development and Services, Bureau of Exceptional Education 

and Student Services 

Kathy Burton, Program Specialist, Bureau of Exceptional Education and Students Services 

Lisa Saavedra, Executive Director of Academic Achievement for English Language Learners 

 

Kansas 

ZoAnn Torrey, former State Director of Special Education 

Martha Gage, Director, Teacher Education and Licensure 

 

New Mexico 

Dan Farley, Education Administrator, Assessment and Evaluation Bureau 

Kathryn Sherlock, Title III State Coordinator 

Bernadette Bach, Director of Professional Licensure Bureau 

 

Texas 

Richard Poe, Manager of Federal Policy and State Programs, IDEA Coordination 

Brent Pitt, Director of Deaf Services, IDEA Coordination 

Georgina Gonzales, Director of ESL and Bilingual Programs, Curriculum Division 

 

 

Table of Contents 

 

Introduction...................................................................................................................................1 

Background...................................................................................................................................2 

Prevalence Data and Disproportionality Research..............................................................2 

Outcome Data..........................................................................................................................3 

Federal Policy and Court Rulings.........................................................................................3 

Data Collection..............................................................................................................................5 

Findings..........................................................................................................................................5 

State Staffing...........................................................................................................................5 

Communication and Collaboration between Special Education and ELL Staff.................6 

State Activities.........................................................................................................................6 

Data Collection and Analysis.............................................................................................6 

Work Groups and Task Forces...........................................................................................7 

Technical Assistance and Guidance...................................................................................7 

Professional Development..................................................................................................9 

Parent Outreach..................................................................................................................9 

Monitoring Activities........................................................................................................10 

State Policies..........................................................................................................................11 

State Personnel Preparation and Certification..................................................................11 

Key Challenges......................................................................................................................12 

Best Practices States Recommend to LEAs........................................................................13 

Policy Recommendations......................................................................................................13 

Summary......................................................................................................................................14 

References....................................................................................................................................16 

Appendix......................................................................................................................................18 

 

 

English Language Learners with Disabilities: 

Identification and Other State Policies and Issues 

 

 

Introduction 

 

States and localities face a range of issues related to English language learners (ELLs) or limited 

English proficient (LEP) students with disabilities, 1 including referral and identification, service 

delivery, staffing, data collection and parent outreach. Much of the research has focused on the 

identification process and has shown that there are patterns of both overrepresentation and 

underrepresentation of ELLs in certain disability categories of special education. This document 

presents current policy issues pertaining to LEP students with disabilities. In the No Child Left 

Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB): 

 

“the term ‘limited English proficient’...means an individual...aged 3 through 21 who is 

enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary school or secondary school, who was not 

born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than 

English...who comes from an environment where a language other than English has had 

a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency...and 

whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language 

may be sufficient to deny the individual the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of 

achievement...the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of 

instruction is English, or the opportunity to participate fully in society” [P.L. 107-110 

§9101(25)]. 

 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) adopts the 

NCLB definition of LEP [P.L. 108-446 §602(18)]. 

 

This analysis includes background information and data from interviews with representatives 

identified by each state director of special education in seven states regarding current state 

staffing, initiatives and policies that focus on identifying ELLs as students with disabilities. A 

resource list based on the interviews and a search of all 51 state department of education 

websites is included in the appendix. Project Forum at the National Association of State 

Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) conducted this analysis as part of its cooperative 

agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs 

(OSEP). 

 

                                                 

 The term English language learner (ELL) is generally preferred in the research literature over the term limited 

English proficient (LEP). The two terms are used interchangeably throughout this document depending on the 

source and context.


 

Background 

 

Prevalence Data and Disproportionality Research 

 

Language minority students are the fastest growing subgroup of children in the public school 

population with an annual increase of about 10% (McCardle et al., 2005) and a 72% increase 

overall between 1992 and 2002 (Zehler et al., 2003a). LEP students represent about 8.4% of all 

public school students and they are enrolled in about half of public schools nationwide (Zehler et 

al., 2003a). Local education agencies (LEAs) reported that 77% of all LEP students have Spanish 

as their native language (Zehler et al., 2003a). The next two largest native language groups 

among LEP students are Vietnamese (2.4%) and Hmong (1.8%). 

 

The literature on this topic reveals that, despite growth in the LEP population, most LEAs do not 

have policies, procedures or mechanisms in place for linking LEP and special education data or 

for collaboration across LEP and special education programs (Zehler et al., 2003a). LEAs cited 

significant challenges in distinguishing language acquisition difficulties and disabilities in LEP 

students. They also reported a lack of staff members who have expertise and knowledge in both 

special education and second language acquisition (Zehler et al., 2003b). According to 2002 

Office of Civil Rights national data projected from a sample of LEAs,2 there are 238,965 LEP 

students in high incidence disability categories nationwide, which include mental retardation 

(MR), emotional disturbance (ED) and learning disabilities (LD). In a survey of LEAs, which 

included all disability categories, findings indicated that 9% of all LEP students were eligible for 

special education services (Zehler et al, 2003b) compared to 13.5% of all students. Nationally, 

LEP students are underrepresented in special education; but there is great variability by 

jurisdiction and the national average masks pockets of both overrepresentation and 

underrepresentation (Zehler et al., 2003b). For example, “districts with smaller LEP student 

populations (99 or fewer LEP students) identify on average 15.8% of their LEP students for 

special education services, while districts with 100 or more LEP students identify on average 

9.1% of their LEP students for special education” (Zehler et al, 2003b, p. 6). 

 

Despite the limitations of currently available assessment tools and lack of classification research, 

there are resources on best practices for identifying and serving ELLs with disabilities (e.g., 

Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Baca & Cervantes, 2003; Gersten & Baker, 2000; Müller & Markowitz, 

2004). However, little is known about how to reliably identify ELLs with high incidence 

disabilities (McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, & Leos, 2005). Further, the research base on the 

disproportionality of ELLs in special education is slim. 

 

What little research there has been on the disproportionality of ELLs in special education has 

suggested there is significant variability. The element of subjectivity inherent in classification of 

students in high incidence disability categories (Harry et al., 2002) and the variability of state 

practices (Reschly & Hosp, 2004) can affect the disproportionality of racial, ethnic and language 

minorities. ELLs are a heterogeneous group of students that differ in native language, language 

                                                 

 http://vistademo.beyond2020.com/ocr2002r/wdsdata.html   



proficiency (both native and English languages), socio-economic status, time in the United States 

and type of language support provided (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2002, 2005; Zehler 

et al., 2003b). Based on a sample of 11 urban school districts in California, Artiles et al. (2002, 

2005) found that ELLs were overrepresented in mental retardation, learning disabilities and 

speech/language impairment categories in the upper elementary and secondary grades. ELLs 

with limited language proficiency in both their native language and English were 

overrepresented in special education across all grades. Also, ELLs with less native language 

support in their educational programs were overrepresented. The limited research that exists 

suggests wide variability in the identification of ELLs as students with disabilities. 

 

Outcome Data 

 

Achievement data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that 

LEP students tend to fare worse in reading and mathematics than their non-LEP peers. In 2005, 

7% of LEP students and 32% of non-LEP students in fourth grade scored “at or above proficient” 

in reading. Fourth grade LEP students did better in math than in reading; however they still 

lagged behind their non-LEP peers. Eleven percent of fourth grade LEP students and 38% of 

non-LEP students scored “at or above proficient” in math.3 The achievement gap between LEP 

and non-LEP students persists in eighth and twelfth grade NAEP achievement data. NAEP does 

not report assessment data on the subpopulation of LEP students with disabilities. 

 

Assessments at the state and district level revealed similar information. Elementary school LEP 

coordinators in 76% of schools reported that third grade LEP students scored below grade level 

or well below grade level in reading and more than half of middle school LEP coordinators 

reported below or well below grade level performance of eighth grade LEP students in math 

(Zehler et al., 2003b). However, many respondents for that study were unable to provide 

information on the achievement, dropout rates and graduation rates of former LEP students. In 

addition, school and district staff respondents were unable to answer questions about outcomes 

for LEP students in special education. Most districts reported combining counts of LEP students 

with disabilities with either the LEP or special education category, rather than counting them as a 

separate subgroup (Zehler et al., 2003b). 

 

Federal Policy and Court Rulings 

 

Both federal policy and case law have shaped procedures and practices for the referral, 

assessment and identification of ELLs as students with disabilities. In the late 1960s and early 

1970s, members of the special education research community began publicly noting the 

overrepresentation of minorities and disadvantaged students in special education (Deno, 1970; 

Dunn, 1968; Mercer, 1973). The growing awareness in part gave rise to significant litigation 

surrounding the practice of using linguistically- or culturally-biased assessment procedures to 

                                                 

 http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/nde/criteria.asp 

 

make placement determinations.4 A consent decree in the 1970 lawsuit, Diana v. State Board of 

Education, in California later influenced special education policy. Specifically: 

 

If a student’s native language is not English, the districts involved in the consent decree 

had to assess the student in both English and his or her primary language; 

Culturally-biased items had to be eliminated from tests used in the assessment process; 

and 

Any IQ tests used in the assessment process needed to be developed in such a way that 

they reflected the Mexican-American culture. 

 

IDEA 2004 contains provisions pertaining to the referral, assessment and identification of LEP 

students with disabilities. The law acknowledges that “studies have documented apparent 

discrepancies in the levels of referral and placement of limited English proficient children in 

special education” [P.L. 108-446 §601(c)(11)(B)] and requires states to “provide data each 

year...on the following: The number and percentage of children with disabilities by...limited 

English proficiency status...” [P.L. 108-446 §618(a)(1)(A)]. This data collection requirement 

was not included in IDEA 1997. However, the new statute does not require states to include data 

on LEP students in special education as a part of their efforts to monitor and address 

disproportionality [P.L. 108-446 § 618(d)(1)].5 

 

Federal policy also provides requirements pertaining to the special education eligibility 

assessment of LEP students. The exclusionary rule in IDEA 2004 states that, “In making a 

determination of eligibility...a child shall not be determined to be a child with a disability if the 

determinant factor for such determination is...limited English proficiency.” [P.L. 108-446 

§614(b)(5)(C)]. Additionally, the statute requires that: 

 

LEAs ensure that “assessments and other evaluation materials...are provided and 

administered in the language and form most likely to yield accurate information...unless 

it is not feasible to so provide or administer” [P.L. 108-446 §614(b)(3)(A)(ii)]; 

assessments must be “used for purposes for which the assessments or measures are valid 

and reliable” [P.L. 108-446 §614(b)(3)(A)(iii)]; and 

assessments “are administered by trained and knowledgeable personnel” [P.L. 108-446 

§614(b)(3)(A)(iv)]. 

 

Meeting the provisions of this requirement can be challenging for LEAs when psychological, 

cognitive and behavioral assessment instruments are not available in most native languages; 

translated tools are not validated on the ELL population; or there is a shortage of special 

                                                 

 For example, Guadalupe Organization v. Tempe Elementary School District, 1972; Larry P. v. Riles, 1986; PASE 

v. Hannon, 1980; Marshall et al. v. Georgia, 1984, 1985; S-1 v. Turlington, 1986. See also Coutinho & Oswald, 

2000 for an overview of cases. 

 P.L. 108-446 §618(d)(1) states, “Each State that receives assistance under this part...shall provide for the 

collection and examination of data to determine if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is 

occurring in the State and the local educational agencies.” 

 

education teachers and school psychologists trained in bilingual assessment (McCardle et al., 

2005). At this time we do not reliably know for any child the degree to which limited language 

proficiency in English may be preventing learning or may be masking a learning disability for 

particular students, or if limited language proficiency contributes to poor performance on 

assessments used for eligibility identification that are not culturally and linguistically appropriate 

for that purpose (Wagner et al., 2005). 

 

Data Collection 

 

To provide information on current state practices related to ELL students with disabilities, 

Project Forum staff interviewed state education agency (SEA) staff members in seven states: 

Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. Project Forum staff 

selected states with large K-12 ELL populations or those that have had a recent growth in their 

K-12 ELL populations, and developed an interview protocol, with input from OSEP and experts 

in the field, to guide the interviews. Interview questions covered staffing at the state level 

dedicated to the sub-population of ELLs with disabilities, state-level activities or initiatives, 

policies pertaining to the special education identification process for ELLs, personnel preparation 

and policy recommendations. Individual interviewees included state directors of special 

education, state-level special education and English language learner staff. In most cases, more 

than one person was interviewed from each state (e.g., a special education unit representative and 

a Title III or ELL unit representative). 

 

Findings 

 

State Staffing 

 

A couple of state special education offices have an employee designated as the point person to 

field questions about ELLs. A New Mexico interviewee said that they have a person with 

expertise in both ELLs and special education who is currently pursuing a doctorate with a joint 

focus on bilingual and special education. In Texas, the staff person assigned to work on issues 

pertaining to deaf students is also tasked to work on issues for ELLs with disabilities. No 

interviewees reported having a state level special education staff member specifically designated 

to work on issues pertaining to ELLs with disabilities. 

 

The interviewees indicated that several or all of the staff members work with issues of ELLs with 

disabilities on an ad hoc basis as questions or concerns arise and that a small amount of work 

time is dedicated exclusively to this population. Many mentioned that ELLs are included in the 

work that they do in general for students with disabilities. When asked what staff members 

worked on issues pertaining to ELLs with disabilities, interviewees frequently mentioned the 

person responsible for testing accommodations or the alternate assessment program in the state. 

The lack of a specific staff member within the state level special education offices complicates 

maintaining 

 

communication and collaboration with the state level office that focuses on ELLs within the 

state, often the Title III or English as a Second Language (ESL) office.6 

 

Communication and Collaboration between Special Education and ELL Staff 

 

Communication and collaboration between the state special education and ELL units occurs in 

several ways, both formal and informal. In California and Arkansas, special education and ELL 

unit staff members serve on each other’s committees. For example, the special education unit 

interviewee from California is a member of the state’s English Learner Council. Similarly, the 

head of the state ELL unit in Arkansas is a regular member of the special education professional 

development task force. State interviewees also reported that serving on intra-division 

committees on various topics fostered communication and understanding of the issues between 

special education and ELL unit staff. For example, in Florida, staff members from the ELL and 

exceptional student education units both serve on an NCLB policy group and a reading policy 

group, where issues pertaining to both populations arise. Another example is an 

interdepartmental assessment team that special education and ELL staff members in New Mexico 

both served on in the past, which, an interviewee stated, “was great because I got to collaborate 

with ELL [and assessment and accountability] folks...and I need that discussion or I’m out of the 

loop.” Communication and collaboration between state-level special education and ELL staff 

members has also occurred in ad hoc work groups formed in California, Florida, Texas and 

Arkansas to develop a technical assistance document or manual on pre-referral, identification, 

eligibility and service delivery for ELLs with disabilities. 

 

Other modes of communication and collaboration between state special education and ELL staff 

include cross or joint training, sharing data or monitoring reports, working together to respond to 

questions from LEAs and communicating informally via email or telephone. California

Arkansas and New Mexico interviewees talked about various cross- or joint-training activities 

conducted with special education and ELL staff. Special education and ELL units in Florida and 

Arkansas talked about sharing data and/or monitoring reports with each other. To some extent, 

all states mentioned working informally with their counterparts in the ELL or special education 

unit to respond to LEA concerns and develop personal relationships across offices. 

 

State Activities 

 

Data Collection and Analysis 

 

States reported a range of access to data on ELLs with disabilities. Arkansas and New Mexico 

collect data on how many ELLs are in special education, but did not have access to more 

nuanced data, such as by disability category. The California interviewee reported being able to 

retrieve data on ELLs by disability category, but not by language proficiency level.  Florida and 

Texas collect and review student-level data on ELLs in specific disability categories. Only one 

                                                 

 Each state interviewed has a different name for the unit that handles issues pertaining to ELLs, ESL, and/or Title 

III. Throughout the rest of the paper, this office is referred to generically as the state ELL unit or office. 


state interviewed, Florida, currently analyzes and uses data on the disproportionality of ELLs in 

special education systematically for monitoring and guidance purposes. Texas and New Mexico 

analyze and use the data to some extent. Representatives from Alaska communicated that they 

are not currently collecting or analyzing data on ELLs in special education because there is no 

federal mandate to do so and the state itself does not see the identification of ELLs with 

disabilities as a problem area. 

 

Work Groups and Task Forces 

 

Interviewees from four states spoke about work groups or task forces that were created for a 

specific short-term purpose pertaining to ELLs with disabilities, typically to jointly create 

technical assistance or guidance documents. 

 

California convened a state-level team that included staff members from state offices of 

special education, English learners, teacher credentialing and representatives from 

universities to create a document that, once approved and finalized, will provide guidance 

for districts on the referral and identification of ELLs with disabilities and IEP 

development.  

 

Florida interviewees mentioned working together to develop joint technical assistance 

policy papers to elaborate on new state statutes or state board of education rules 

pertaining to exceptional student education and ELLs. 

 

 

Texas held statewide meetings of ELL and special education stakeholders for 

approximately three years to develop guidance for districts in identifying, placing and 

serving ELLs with disabilities. Additionally, one of the regional educational service 

centers in Texas has a special education-bilingual task force formed in 2000 to address 

the overrepresentation of bilingual students in special education.  

 

Arkansas special education and ELL staff worked with the Southeast Regional Resource 

Center (SERRC) and an outside consultant to develop training for paraprofessionals 

working with ELLs with disabilities and a pre-referral manual to guide the special 

education assessment process for multicultural and multilingual students.7  

 

Technical Assistance and Guidance 

 

The interviewees from states included in this study discussed various forms of technical 

assistance and guidance they provide to LEAs on the topic of ELLs with disabilities including 

manuals or handbooks and policy memos or publications. Interviewees also mentioned 

responding directly to LEA questions or concerns on an ad hoc basis and the use of state 

                                                 

 Links to all available technical assistance documents mentioned are listed in the Resources section. 


technical assistance centers to provide support to LEAs. The type of assistance most directly 

related to issues for ELLs with disabilities are the state-created manuals or handbooks. 

 

Representatives from five states reported that they currently have, or are developing, a special 

education handbook, either specifically for ELLs or with a chapter dedicated to the special 

education identification process for linguistic minority students. 

 

In 2003, Arkansas developed a stand-alone document in conjunction with SERRC 

outlining the state guidelines for nondiscriminatory assessment. This handbook provides 

a thorough and research-based rationale for the state’s focus on this subpopulation. 

Contents include a description of the pre-referral intervention process, team membership, 

background information on second language acquisition and detailed guidelines for the 

formal special education evaluation process for ELLs. The appendices include sample 

tools and forms to assist the team throughout the process. 

 

New Mexico has a Technical Evaluation and Assessment Manual that was updated in 

2005. It describes the state’s evaluation and assessment requirements for Part B of IDEA. 

The document includes a section specifically dedicated to multilingual assessment issues. 

It details guidelines based on research on types of information to be collected for an 

evaluation of an ELL, strategies to reduce bias in assessment and components needed in a 

multilingual diagnostic evaluation report. In addition, in 2001 New Mexico’s Department 

of Education, with the collaboration of various statewide stakeholders and scholars 

published two detailed, stand-alone technical assistance documents on nondiscriminatory 

assessment practices for culturally and linguistically diverse preschool and school-age 

students. These documents include background information on second language 

acquisition; pre-referral strategies and best practices for the formal evaluation process; as 

well as sample interviews, questions and checklists. Furthermore, New Mexico has 

incorporated guidance on accurate identification of ELLs as students with disabilities in 

their response to intervention and student assistance team manuals. 

 

Kansas included a chapter specific to assessment and intervention considerations for 

culturally and linguistically diverse students in its speech-language guidelines issued in 

2005. With the premise that the main goal of evaluation by speech-language pathologists 

is to distinguish a language difference from a language disorder, the chapter includes 

second language acquisition information, appropriate use of translators or interpreters and 

a thorough description of effective data collection techniques and strategies. The chapter 

also includes an extensive list of resources and references. Kansas’ state ELL unit also 

has a web-based guide for school psychologists on best practices in interventions and 

evaluations for ELLs prepared in 1999 by the state’s Bilingual Assessment Committee. 

 

California and Texas currently have drafts of technical assistance manuals or guides 

specific to the special education evaluation process for ELLs. The draft document in 

California includes information on pre-referral strategies and issues to consider when  

 

evaluating ELLs for special education eligibility. Texas has developed what was 

described by the interviewees as a chart that maps the special education referral and 

identification process for ELLs. This chart is intended to guide LEAs on how to address 

the needs of ELLs being considered for special education and help clarify state rules on 

the subject. The state department of education released a draft of the chart to the state’s 

regional service centers for comment. 

 

Professional Development 

 

Alaska, Florida and Texas interviewees mentioned giving presentations on special education 

issues at state ELL conferences and trainings or vice versa. The Texas ELL director stated that 

the state has at least two trainings specifically designed to address the needs of ELLs with 

disabilities at its annual Title III management institute. Additionally, the region one educational 

service center in Texas offers staff development to assessment personnel with an emphasis on 

appropriate materials and strategies for bilingual assessment. 

 

Arkansas interviewees also discussed professional development activities on strategies for this 

subpopulation. Around the same time the handbook described above was developed, the special 

education and ELL units also worked with an outside scholar to develop an extensive training 

module on teaching strategies for ELLs with disabilities targeted at paraprofessionals. 

Additionally, the state’s annual ESL academy for teachers, which satisfies requirements for state 

ESL endorsement, set aside spaces for special education teachers. Conference planners worked 

with the state special education office to recruit attendees. Dissemination of, and training on, the 

ELL handbook is ongoing. 

 

Parent Outreach 

 

All states reported making common special education documents targeted to parents available to 

LEAs in a minimum of English and Spanish but often in two to three other languages as well. 

For example, Alaska requires LEAs to provide parental notices, child find notices and procedural 

safeguards in any language for which they have a bilingual program. Interpreter services for 

parent-attended meetings are typically the responsibility of the LEAs. The California state 

Education Code requires that LEAs offer to translate completed Individualized Education 

Programs (IEPs) into parents’ native languages to facilitate informed consent. New Mexico 

provides Spanish versions of a blank IEP template and procedural safeguards to LEAs. 

 

All states reported fulfilling the requirements of including parents in mandated activities, such as 

state and local advisory committees, and including parents in state-level task forces and work 

groups formed around specific issues. Three states reported initiatives or activities specifically 

designed to increase understanding and participation of parents of ELLs in the special education 

process. Most states also reported resources and activities targeted at parents in general, such as 

Parent Training and Information Centers or educational service centers, which may benefit 

parents of ELLs. 

 

California’s procedural safeguards and referral service unit instituted and advertised a 

toll-free number accessible to both English and Spanish-speaking parents to call with 

complaints or questions in 2000. The interviewee reported an increase in calls from 

parents of ELLs since this phone line, staffed with Spanish-speaking state level 

consultants, became available. 

 

Florida’s exceptional student education bureau funds a Parents Educating Parents project 

targeted at the migrant parent population in four rural communities. Members of this 

project have also trained the statewide network of parent services personnel on better 

ways to reach parents and recognize the impact of cultural differences. 

 

Kansas conducted parent surveys as a part of the development of its state performance 

plan; the surveys were translated into Spanish and provided to LEAs. 

 

The states interviewed discussed four primary challenges related to involving parents of ELLs in 

the special education process. 

 

SEAs and LEAs face challenges in adapting traditional information dissemination 

strategies to families whose native language is not English, including general information 

about the U.S. educational system and special education parent rights and responsibilities.   

Cultural issues pose significant challenges to LEAs, including a lack of trust of the 

educational system, fear of opening up or admitting a child has problems and being 

uncomfortable in the formal educational atmosphere on the part of parents and difficulty 

in adopting culturally responsive practices on the part of schools.  

Language barriers further complicate parent involvement in the special education 

process, particularly if parents’ native language is less common or unwritten, as is the 

case for some Native American languages. 

Special challenges are presented by migrant families of ELLs with high mobility rates. 

 

Monitoring Activities 

 

When asked about other activities at the state level that targeted issues pertaining to ELLs with 

disabilities, three states discussed their formal special education monitoring process for LEAs. 

 

California’s focused monitoring technical assistance teams always have at least one 

consultant with knowledge of, and responsibility for, monitoring the items specific to 

ELLs on a review team. 

 

The ELL and exceptional student education units in Florida both use risk factors to 

identify districts needing monitoring and assistance. One of the risk factors considered is 

the over-representation of ELLs in specific disability categories or the under-representation 

of ELLs in gifted education. 

 

The ELL and special education units in New Mexico both engage in focused monitoring 

practices. One of the items that the New Mexico special education staff specifically include 

in its LEA monitoring is that a language proficiency assessment, not simply a home 

language survey, has been administered prior to a full special education evaluation. 

Monitoring staff from the ELL office look at data and target visits to schools with high 

percentages of ELLs in special education. They share findings with the building principal 

and district ELL coordinator and often recommend that schools examine their referral and 

identification process for bias and that teaching staff be trained further on second language 

acquisition and language development needs. 

 

State Policies 

 

Interviewees from Alaska, Kansas, New Mexico and Arkansas reported having no additional state 

policies or regulations that specifically address ELLs with disabilities. In other words, their state 

policies mirror the federal law and do not go beyond it. Representatives from California, Texas 

and Florida reported elements of their state laws or regulations that specifically address this 

subpopulation.  

 

California requires that the assessment plan include information on the primary 

language and the student’s language proficiency in his or her primary langauge. 

Additionally, California regulations require districts to provide a copy of the completed 

IEP in the native language at the parent’s request. 

 

Texas Administrative Code indicates that ELL students will not be denied placement in 

ESL or bilingual programs because of their status as a student with a disability. The 

code also requires that the school’s language proficiency assessment committee 

(LPAC) and the admission, review and dismissal (ARD) committee work 

collaboratively when an ELL is being considered for or currently receiving special 

education services.  

 

Florida has a state board of education rule that requires the IEP committee to work with 

ESL staff to jointly determine the best assessment strategies for an ELL student with a 

disability. Districts in Florida are required to report annually the number of special 

education and gifted students by LEP and type of disability (or gifted) program to the 

state department of education. The state also requires districts to coordinate exceptional 

student programming with ESL services. 

 

State Personnel Preparation and Certification 

 

Arkansas, Florida and Kansas offer endorsements in ESL. California, New Mexico and Texas 

offer separate endorsements in both ESL and bilingual education. Florida teachers, including 

those licensed in special education, are mandated to have an ESL level endorsement and 

California teachers who have ELL students in their class must have a Cross-cultural Language  

 and Academic Development (CLAD) endorsement. Additionally, California’s Commission on 

Teacher Credentialing has recently initiated a change to their special education credential that 

will embed an ELL authorization in the required coursework. Alaska offers no endorsements or 

licenses in either ESL or bilingual education. No state interviewees reported offering a teaching 

certification or license specifically for bilingual special education. 

 

Two states were able to provide information when asked how many teachers are currently 

licensed in special education and hold ESL or bilingual endorsements: 

 

Kansas reported having 477 special education teachers with some type of ESL 

endorsement, which represents 8.8% of the state’s special education teachers.  

 

Arkansas reported that 140 teachers licensed in special education currently hold an ESL 

endorsement, representing 2.2% of licensed special education teachers in the state. 

Arkansas is also the only state that reported any initiatives aimed at increasing the 

number of special education teachers endorsed in ESL or bilingual education; the state 

has been informally recruiting special education teachers to attend an annual summer 

academy provided by the state ELL unit, which results in their meeting requirements for 

a state endorsement. 

 

No state representative reported having an endorsement for school psychologists or educational 

diagnosticians trained in multicultural or multilingual assessment or special designation or 

certificate for special education paraprofessionals trained specifically to work with ELLs with 

disabilities. Florida’s Office of Multicultural Student Language Education provides a list of 

competencies as a model for district ESL training for school psychologists.8  

 

Key Challenges  

 

States reported several key challenges related to serving ELLs with disabilities. 

 

Despite several reported activities, there is a need for deeper and more sustainable 

communication and collaboration between the fields of special education and ELLs at the 

state and local levels leading to a cohesive effort to address the needs of this sub- 

population rather than independent projects or efforts. 

States with large numbers of ELLs face the challenge of addressing their needs on a 

greater scale. 

Cultural and environmental factors may pose challenges for schools attempting to involve 

parents in the special education process. 

There is a lack of adequate training in second language acquisition, cultural sensitivity, 

ESL instruction and bilingual education, and pre-referral interventions in both special and 

general education. 

                                                 

 http://www.firn.edu/doe/omsle/psycomp.htm 


There is a lack of educational diagnosticians or school psychologists and speech 

pathologists who are bilingual and/or trained in multicultural and multilingual assessment 

strategies. 

There is a lack of resources and materials for assessment and interventions in second 

languages other than Spanish. 

Lack of appropriately normed and technically sound cognitive and academic assessments 

in languages other than English is a significant barrier to appropriate identification.  

 

Best Practices States Recommend to LEAs 

 

State interviewees highlighted several items when asked what best practices they routinely 

recommended to LEAs. California and Arkansas respondents both emphasized the importance of 

assessing language proficiency as a crucial first step in the pre-referral or eligibility process in 

order to rule out a language acquisition issue as a primary or even secondary cause of a student’s 

difficulties. Kansas interviewees added that the analysis must go beyond social language and 

examine academic language proficiency as well. A representative from New Mexico stressed that 

ELLs’ performance should be measured against peers with similar levels of language 

proficiency. California requires the inclusion of linguistically appropriate goals for ELLs and 

recommends use of the state’s English language development standards in the writing of IEP 

goals for ELL students once they are identified as students with disabilities. 

 

Respondents from California, Florida, New Mexico and Texas repeatedly raised the importance 

of ELL and special education staff working together at the local level to assess and make 

eligibility decisions for ELLs. This ranged from the eligibility team consulting an ESL teacher in 

the school on the assessment results to the team working consistently and collaboratively with a 

team of ESL professionals throughout the identification process. Kansas and Texas interviewees 

both mentioned that they recommend that LEAs not set timelines for special education referrals 

for ELLs; for example, the state would advise against an LEA setting a policy that no ELL can 

be referred for two years or until their language proficiency score is at a certain level. 

Interviewees stressed the importance of recognizing the individuality of students and that 

collaborative teams should decide when to refer on a case by case basis. 

 

Arkansas staff members recommend to their LEAs that efforts be made to ensure all special 

education teachers are trained in ESL teaching strategies. A Florida representative mentioned the 

importance of communicating details of the special education process to parents in their native 

language and going further than what may be required by law to truly ensure that they 

understand. 

 

Policy Recommendations 

 

The states that participated in the interviews offered a number of suggestions when asked for 

policy recommendations pertaining to referral, identification, assessment and service delivery to 

ELLs with disabilities. 

 

Local accountability - Local planning areas that submit special education program plans 

to the state should be required to detail their process for the referral, identification, 

assessment and service delivery to ELLs with disabilities. 

Clear policies and guidance - States should create a comprehensive policy for ELLs with 

exceptionalities (including gifted education) based on current research followed by 

extensive guidance to localities. 

Teacher training and licensure - States should facilitate and/or require all teachers to be 

trained to some extent in ESL strategies and language acquisition.  Further, policies should 

be in place that require any teacher who serves at least one ELL to be trained in the 

appropriate ESL or bilingual education strategies necessary in order to meet the language 

development as well as academic needs of the students. 

Coordinated policies between special education and ELL professionals - States should 

consider developing policies that require and set parameters for communication and 

collaboration between ELL and special education professionals at the point of entry to and 

exit from special education as well as during the monitoring process while ELLs are being 

served in special education. 

 

In addition to these state policy recommendations, some states mentioned the need for additional 

guidance from OSEP, perhaps in the form of synthesized, user-friendly research that states can 

use to create policy and disseminate information and best practices to localities. 

 

Summary 

 

Several findings in the case studies described in this document mirror those reported by district 

and school level personnel in Zehler et al. (2003a). State level respondents in this analysis and 

district survey respondents in Zehler et al. (2003a) reported the challenges of a lack of special 

education personnel trained in ESL or bilingual education, the absence of appropriate assessment 

instruments in languages other than English, cultural barriers in communicating effectively and 

clearly with parents of ELLs and the challenges of sustained collaboration between ESL or 

bilingual education and special education professionals. 

 

There is currently a federal statutory focus and dedication of resources toward addressing the 

problems presented by disproportionality in special education. For example, the OSEP-funded 

National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) is dedicated to 

providing technical assistance and professional development to states and localities with the goal 

of closing the achievement gap and reducing inappropriate referrals to special education for 

culturally and linguistically diverse students. NCCRESt has held forums and published articles 

specifically on the issues surrounding ELLs in special education. To some extent, however, 

states and localities are focused primarily on analyzing and addressing issues of racial and ethnic 

disproportionality in special education due to statutory requirements for data collection and a 

significant research base on the extent and nature of racial and ethnic disproportionality in 

special education (e.g., Donovan & Cross, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002). While the literature on 

disproportionality of ELLs is growing, in large part due to the efforts of NCCRESt, there is a 

great need for further understanding of the nature of disproportionate representation of ELLs and 

for baseline data specific to ELLs. State respondents expressed a need for information and clarity 

from OSEP and its networks on how to best address the challenges inherent in the area. 

Conversely, much can be learned from the work of a few states that have pioneered efforts in this 

area. 

 

Challenges requiring further research and guidance continue to exist. There needs to be a greater 

understanding of the circumstances under which ELLs are overrepresented or underrepresented 

in special education in order for states to adequately address LEA needs. For example, one state 

respondent suggested that in her experience, smaller rural districts with limited bilingual or ESL 

resources tend to overidentify ELLs for special education. On the other hand, a few state 

respondents mentioned some larger LEAs with extensive ESL and bilingual resources want to set 

a policy requiring schools to wait a prescribed amount of time before considering a special 

education referral for an ELL. Both scenarios and the implications for inappropriate referrals 

need to be further explored. 

 

Many of the challenges states and localities face stem from the lack of research demonstrating 

that either early identification of ELLs with disabilities or waiting for English language 

proficiency is linked to better student outcomes. Furthermore, research has not yet proven 

specific service delivery models effective, which has considerable implications for professional 

development (e.g., which teachers or service providers should be trained in what). Unfortunately, 

this lack of information raises more questions rather than answers for both policy makers and 

practitioners. 

 

Finally, research and instrument development for assessments in languages other than English is 

a critical need for this population. School psychologists and educational diagnosticians are 

presented with few valid options when the choice is to assess a student in English and compare 

his or her scores against English-only speaking students or use a non-standard administration of 

an assessment (e.g., translating the assessment questions into the student’s native language with 

an interpreter). Both of these options render the scores invalid. Given this limitation, current best 

practices call for gathering information from multiple sources, testing for language proficiency 

and using professional judgment. Due to the high cost of instrument development, validation and 

norming procedures, test developers need incentives in order to induce production of viable tools 

for the cognitive evaluation of ELLs.  Developing partnerships and initiatives with test 

manufacturers is an area states may want to consider exploring in order to address this significant 

challenge. 

 

References 

 

Artiles, A. J. & Ortiz, A. A. (Eds.). (2002). English language learners with special needs: 

Identification, placement and instruction. Washington, DC: Center for Applied 

Linguistics and Delta Systems Co., Inc. 

 

Artiles, A. J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J. J., & Higareda, I. (2002). English-language learner 

representation in special education in California urban school districts. In D. J. Losen & 

G. Orfield (Eds.), Racial Inequity in Special Education (pp. 117-136). Cambridge, MA: 

Harvard Education Press. 

 

Artiles, A. J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J. J., & Higareda, I. (2005). Within-group diversity in minority 

disproportionate representation: English language learners in urban school districts. 

Exceptional Children, 71, 283-300. 

 

Baca, L. M. & Cervantes, H. T. (2003). The bilingual special education interface, 4th Ed. Upper 

Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

 

Deno, E. (1970). Special education as development capital. Exceptional Children, 37, 229-237. 

 

Donovan, M. S. & Cross, C. T. (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education

Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 

 

Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded—Is much of it justifiable? 

Exceptional Children, 35, 5-22. 

 

Gersten, R. & Baker, S. (2000). What we know about effective instructional practices for 

English-language learners. Exceptional Children, 66, 54-70. 

 

Harry, B., Klingner, J. K., Sturges, K. M., & Moore, R. F. (2002). Of rocks and soft places: 

Using qualitative methods to investigate disproportionality. In D. J. Losen & G. Orfield 

(Eds.), Racial Inequity in Special Education (pp. 71-92). Cambridge, MA: Harvard 

Education Press. 

 

Losen, D. J. & Orfield, G. (2002). Racial inequity in special education. Cambridge, MA: 

Harvard Education Press. 

 

McCardle, P., Mele-McCarthy, J., & Leos, K. (2005). English language learners and learning 

disabilities: Research agenda and implications for practice. Learning Disabilities 

Research & Practice, 20, 68-79. 

 

McCardle, P., Mele-McCarthy, J., Cutting, L., Leos, K., & D’Emilio, T. (2005). Learning 

disabilities in English language learners: Identifying the issues. Learning Disabilities 

Research & Practice, 20, 1-5. 

 

Mercer, J. R. (1973). Labeling the mentally retarded. Berkeley, CA: University of California 

Press. 

 

Müller, E. & Markowitz, J. (2004, March). English language learners with disabilities

Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved 

on August 26, 2005 from http://www.nasdse.org/publications/ells.pdf 

 

Reschly, D. J. & Hosp, J. L. (2004). State SLD identification policies and practices. Learning 

Disability Quarterly, 27, 197-213. 

 

Wagner, R. K., Francis, D. J., & Morris, R. D. (2005). Identifying English language learners with 

learning disabilities: Key challenges and possible approaches. Learning Disabilities 

Research & Practice, 20, 6-15. 

 

Zehler, A.M., Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Stephenson, T.G., Pendzick, M.L., and Sapru, S. 

(2003a). Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students with 

Disabilities. Volume I: Research Report. Submitted to U.S. Department of Education, 

OELA. Arlington VA: Development Associates, Inc. Retrieved on February 16, 2006 

from http://www.devassoc.com/LEPdoclist.asp 

 

Zehler, A.M., Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Pendzick, M.L., and Stephenson, T.G. (2003b). 

Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students with Disabilities. 

Special Topic Report #4: Findings on Special Education LEP Students. Submitted to U.S. 

Department of Education, OELA. Arlington VA: Development Associates, Inc. Retrieved 

on February 16, 2006 from http://www.devassoc.com/LEPdoclist.asp 


 

Appendix 

 

Resources Referenced in Text9 

 

Arkansas: 

State Guidelines on Nondiscriminatory Assessment and Addressing Educational Needs of 

English Language Learners with Disabilities, 2003, Arkansas Department of Special Education. 

http://arksped.k12.ar.us/documents/stateprogramdevelopment/ELLDocument.pdf 

 

New Mexico: 

Technical Evaluation and Assessment Manual, August 2005, New Mexico Public Education 

Department. http://www.ped.state.nm.us/seo/library/nmteam.htm 

 

Technical Assistance Document for Nondiscriminatory Assessment of Culturally and 

Linguistically Diverse School-Age Students, 2001, New Mexico Department of Education. 

http://www.ped.state.nm.us/seo/assessment/ta.pdf 

 

Technical Assistance Document for Nondiscriminatory Assessment of Culturally and 

Linguistically Diverse Preschool Students, 2001, New Mexico Department of Education. 

http://www.ped.state.nm.us/seo/assessment/preschool_cld.pdf 

 

Kansas: 

School Psychologists Best Practices in General Education Interventions and Comprehensive 

Evaluations of English Language Learners, 1999, Kansas Bilingual Assessment Committee. 

http://www.ksde.org/sfp/esol/bestpract.html 

 

Speech-Language Guidelines for Schools with a Focus on Research-Based Practices, 2005, 

Kansas State Department of Education. http://www.kansped.org/ksde/resources/speechguide.pdf 

 

Other State Resources 

 

Colorado: English Language Learners with Exceptional Needs Resource Page. 

http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdesped/SD-ELL.asp 

 

Hawaii: Evaluation & Instructional Services for ESLL Program/Special Education Students. 

http://doe.k12.hi.us/specialeducation/esllsped.htm 

 

Illinois: Serving English Language Learners with Disabilities: A Resource Manual for Illinois 

Educators, 2002. http://www.isbe.state.il.us/spec-ed/pdfs/ell_disabilities_manual.pdf 

 

                                                 

 The California and Texas technical assistance documents referenced in the text are not finalized or available to the 

public at this point.  Therefore, they are not listed here.

 

Iowa: Special Education Eligibility Standards, Appendix G - Culturally and Linguistically 

Diverse Students, January 2006. http://www.state.ia.us/educate/ecese/cfcs/speced/doc/sees.pdf 

 

Louisiana: Louisiana Guidelines for Identification & Instruction of English Language Learners 

with Disabilities, December 2005. http://www.doe.state.la.us/LDE/uploads/8577.pdf 

 

New Jersey: English Language Learners and Special Education Presentation. 

http://www.state.nj.us/njded/bilingual/resources/ell2.htm 

 

Pennsylvania: IDEA 2004 and the Special Education Process for Students with Limited English 

Proficiency. http://www.pattan.net/files/IDEIA/IDEA2004Process.pdf 

 

Tennessee : Special Education Manual, Appendix D - Assessment Guidelines for English 

Language Learners, 2003. http://www.state.tn.us/education/speced/doc/semanual.pdf 

 

Vermont: Initial Meeting of the ELL Special Education Project Initiative, May 2006. 

http://www.state.vt.us/educ/new/pdfdoc/pgm_esl/ell_sped_initiative.pdf 

 

Washington : Evaluation and Assessment in Early Childhood Special Education: Children who 

are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse, July 1999. 

http://www.k12.wa.us/SpecialEd/pubdocs/CLD.doc 

 

Wisconsin: Linguistically Culturally Diverse II -- Populations: American Indian & Spanish 

Speaking, 2003. http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/pubsales/spcled_9.html


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