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Margins of Error
The needs of limited English proficiency students put special education assessment to the test.
Teaching Tolerance Magazine
Number 24 Fall 2003
by Joe Parsons Illustration by Jim Osbourne
 Tony Guisasola starts his bus route before daylight in Ellijay, a town of 1,600 in the wooded mountains of north Georgia. Later in the day, he teaches math and science to homebound middle school children.

In addition to his transportation and teaching duties, he administers and interprets screening tests for special education services in Ellijay schools.

The son of a Cuban-born North Carolinian, Guisasola also frequently serves as a Spanish-language interpreter for teachers, students and parents. But the special education screening tests he administers are in English only, which yields unreliable results for students whose English is limited.

"I speak fluent Spanish," Guisasola says, "but I don't have the instruments for assessing the needs of Spanish-speaking students. Informal translations don't work. My wife, Becky, is an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher. It breaks our hearts to see these children not getting the level of services they deserve."

If a Spanish-speaking student requires psychological evaluation, a specialist must be brought in from Atlanta, at a cost of several hundred dollars. Ellijay's budget constraints weigh heavily against such consultations, he says.

Tony and Becky's combination of responsibilities gives them a unique perspective on a problem that many observers say is growing at an alarming rate across the United States: inadequate coordination between special education and English-language support services.

Language-minority students are the fastest-growing population in U.S. public schools. During the 1990s, their numbers rose from 8 million to 15 million. These include new immigrant students as well as students from Native American and indigenous backgrounds.

Research shows that the distribution of "extremely bright," "average" and "cognitively limited" individuals is similar across cultural segments of the population. Accordingly, about 12% of language-minority students may be expected to have learning or emotional disabilities.

Education researchers have long recognized that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are disproportionately represented in special education programs.

But careful scrutiny tells a more complicated story for language-minority students. Often they are overrepresented in some special education programs and underrepresented in others.

In a number of high-profile cases, misdiagnosis of bilingual students for special education has led to costly litigation and improper education for students.

In Diana v. California State Board of Education, for example, a Spanish-speaking student in Monterey County, Calif., had been placed in a class for mildly mentally retarded students because she had scored low on an IQ test given to her in English. The court ruled that Spanish-speaking children should be retested in their native language to avoid errors in placement.

As a result, many school districts have become extraordinarily sensitive to charges of overidentification sensitive enough, in some cases, to err in the opposite direction. As a result, language minority students with very real special education needs are being left behind.

Because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees children in the United States the right to any necessary special educational services in the least restrictive environment possible, state and local education officials are required to consider cultural and linguistic factors when developing policies and procedures for special education assessment.

But a host of issues make this mandate difficult for many districts to fulfill, especially in rural areas or small towns like Ellijay.

Judy Smith-Davis, of Vanderbilt University's Alliance Project which works with minority institutions of higher education to increase special education personnel from historically under-represented populations points to the changing nature of immigration as an underlying problem.

Nearly 10% of the U.S. population is now immigrants, and 9 million of them are children. In the past, says Smith-Davis, new immigrants settled first in urban areas, where school resources existed for new immigrant students.

Today, however, food processing and agricultural industries draw many immigrant families to scattered, rural areas where special educational resources for language minorities are lacking.

Ellijay, for example, has attracted scores of Mexican and Central American families in recent years. Ellijay schools are now grappling with an unprecedented challenge: how to educate students from diverse cultures, many of whom do not speak English when they arrive.

Across the country, meeting the needs of LEP students is made more complex by economic conditions. Census Bureau statistics show that the children of immigrants are significantly poorer than the children of native-born Americans. Close to 30% of immigrant children live in poverty versus 16% of the children of native-born Americans.

Ohio State University's Suha Al-Hassan and Ralph Gardner note that this poverty compounds other factors that can contribute to the need for special education services.

Many immigrant parents work in jobs that do not provide family health insurance, so prenatal and neonatal care may be deficient or altogether absent. Even in states that provide screenings for educational disabilities to all children, recent immigrants may be unaware that they are entitled to this service.

Furthermore, poverty and the emotional/physical trauma that may have prompted a family to seek refuge in the United States in the first place may affect a child's special educational needs.

Creative Puzzlers
The Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) is a Virginia-based organization that monitors administration of special education services and trains parents of special-needs children to be their own best advocates.

In a 2000-2001 project aiming to help Latino families in Virginia negotiate the winding special education referral process, PEATC's Latino Outreach Specialists made nearly 400 contacts and served a total of 64 families.

"As word has spread about our services," says executive director Cherie Takemoto, "the demand keeps increasing."

PEATC has also branched out to work with parents in Maryland and conducted workshops in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

The PEATC initiative revealed disturbing patterns, says Takemoto. Schools sometimes shy away from referring LEP students for "mild disabilities" such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or learning disabilities [LD], she explains.

But when students with such disabilities do not receive special education services, they fall further behind. Additional problems set in, such as failure to do homework, truancy, discipline issues, suspension and even expulsion.

"When the schools finally take action," says Takemoto, "too often it is to label the child as having an emotional disability."

This leads, she finds, to a greater number of LEP students being diagnosed for mild mental retardation and emotional disability. The PEATC staff observed no corresponding overrepresentation for LD and ADHD for language-minority students.

A 2002 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project (see Resources sidebar) identified a set of interacting factors that contribute to disproportionate numbers of LEP students in special education programs.

From the outset, unconscious biases can affect decisions about "whom to test, what test to use, when to use alternative tests, how to interpret student responses, and what weight to give results from specific tests."

While this bias does not reflect the efforts of many teachers who go to bat for LEP students, examples have also shown how results of correctly or incorrectly administered tests and the presence or absence of advocates can make or break a student's career.

There are as yet no standardized instruments or federal or state criteria to assess special needs of LEP students.

With a few exceptions, schools of education are not training future teachers in both special education and ESL instruction. Given the "paucity" of dual training, Nancy Cloud of Rhode Island College notes in a study that professionals are left to find their own training opportunities at conferences and workshops and, from these haphazard events, must piece together the elements that formulate appropriate practice.

At George Mason University in Virginia, however, Eva Thorp and her colleagues are charting a new path for teacher preparation that addresses the complex needs of culturally, linguistically and ability-diverse young children and their families.

The Unified Transformative Early Education Model (UTEEM), which Thorp co-directs, offers teachers multiple licensure in early childhood education, early childhood special education, ESL and multicultural education.

The two-year graduate-level program fully integrates coursework in language development, assessment of culturally diverse student populations, family assessment and curriculum development for diverse learners.

A series of four internships in daycare, pre-school and school settings prepares future teachers to know the peoples and cultures in their community. Going shopping with families or gathering family stories (as opposed to a clinical checklist) help graduates understand how families make decisions, what their hopes and priorities are.

For instance, the better teachers understand their students' various language exposure, students' level of proficiency in the primary language and in English, and their prior education experience, the more equipped are they to distinguish between English language skill delay and language disability.

Bringing parents into the process is key to effective service. But that can be challenging because of the power differentials that exist between parents and school authorities, especially if parents are recent immigrants or lack formal education.

Recent immigrants may not be aware of their children's rights. Further, undocumented parents may be reluctant to step forward and demand special education services for their children.

Parents may not fully understand the nature of a child's disability and the corresponding special educational needs.

Ana Avenzini, PEATC's outreach specialist, explains, "For many in the Latino community, if they have a child with a disability in their own country, they receive no assistance. Under this frame of reference, they think the child will be 'put out' of school."

Andrea Ghetzler, a special education teacher and administrator from Skokie, Ill., points out that some cultures are more accepting of developmental disabilities than others.

"In a lot of cultures," she says, "there is no such thing as special education,... it's thought of as 'mental retardation.'"

If a student is thought to require special education services, Ghetzler's first challenge is sometimes to persuade parents to consent to assessment. In some cases, parents fear that their child will be institutionalized and prefer to ignore or hide the problem.

A significant part of the educator's or advocate's job, then, consists of explaining the nature of special education to parents and bridging cultural differences regarding disabilities. It is a process that requires building trust over time.

It takes a village educators, school support personnel such as psychologists and speech/language therapists, policy-makers and parents working together to fine-tune special education and English-language support services for LEP students.

It means developing appropriate assessment instruments, consistent guidelines and integrative teacher training that take into account students' linguistic, cultural diversity as well as their general cognitive and learning development.

It takes commitment and resources no less so that no student would be mislabeled or fall through the cracks.

Joe Parsons is an editor and writer from Illinois.