Vaughn et al. (2003) report that the identification of LD students has increased upwards of 200% since 1977, with explanations ranging from a likely outcome of the growing knowledge field, to LD as a field serving as a sink for the failures of general education to meet the needs of students of varying abilities. The study investigators find that not only is the heterogeneity of the identified students quite wide, they also find that many students are overrepresented (misidentified) or underrepresented (unidentified). One large problem is the use of IQ tests to identify those students as learning disabled. Using standardized tests fails to accurately identify those students who either have reading difficulties or those students whose first language is not English. More emphasis is needed on response to instruction type models of assessment and intervention to replace ineffective normalized standards for identifying students at risk and properly placing students for early intervention (Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, & Hickman, 2003).
Abedi (2008) reports that the problem of administering assessment tests in English for non-native English speakers may not provide reliable information about the academic levels of the ELL student. Additionally, the linguistic issues in the wording of the tests that are outside of knowledge content further confound the issue. Language variables that are not pertinent to the academic content take away from the strength of the testing outcomes. Test results used for identification of students at risk for learning disability may not be reliable especially for ELL students on the low end of the English language proficiency curve. ELL students risk being misidentified by tests that do not accurately measure their knowledge or reflect their current academic levels (Abedi, 2008).
Waitoller et al. (2009) reviewed research on overrepresentation between 1968 and 2006. The study was intended to find the characteristics of overrepresentation studies, as well as to elucidate how those studies framed the problem of overrepresentation. The study investigators found that most of the literature came from journals on special education, with study number increasing over time with emphasis after year 2000. Most studies focused on learning disabilities and African-Americans. The studies were typically framed in one of three ways: sociodemographic models focusing on individuals and social contexts; critical perspectives involving power issues revolving around the race issue, and professional practices leading to both creation and maintenance of overrepresentation. This study finding indicates that while awareness is increasing, the spheres in which it is occurring may need redressing especially to capture the cultural factor of misidentifying ELL students as learning disabled (Waitoller, Artiles, & Cheney, 2009).
Contreras (2006) found that Spanish-speaking Latino students in a South Texas school district were twice as likely to be receiving special education services as their English speaking counterparts. Further analysis revealed that the overrepresentation of ELL students receiving special education was at 77%. This clearly reveals an inappropriate method in those school districts where ELL students were misidentified as learning disabled, likely due to language proficiency issues (Contreras, 2006).
Sullivan (2009) reports that there has been a disproportionate representation of linguistic minorities in the research on misidentification of students for special education services, with most studies focusing on racial minorities. Sullivan finds that ELL students are not only not represented well in the literature, they are also overrepresented in actuality for special education services (Sullivan, 2009).
August et al. (2005) report that ELL students who display slow development of their vocabulary cannot comprehend text to the same degree as their English speaking counterparts. Outcomes for these students are that they are likely to perform poorly on assessment tests and hence risk being misidentified as learning disabled. The study investigators suggest using native language testing, basic word-meaning tests, and appropriate support and reinforcement in instruction can mitigate the language deficits of ELL students (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005).
ELL students are at particular risk for being misidentified as learning disabled overall in the typical English speaking educational system. Cultural and linguistic differences in testing and intervention do not account for the actual academic knowledge of the students, with static models of testing and intervention potentially exacerbating and prolonging the situation for the ELL student, in terms of the student's academic needs not being met.
Issues in the Pre-Referral Process
Educators and school personnel are those people that are involved in identifying children at risk and in possible need of intervention services. Teachers may be affected by existing processes for referring students for intervention services, as well as be unfavorably influenced by factors relating to implementation of intervention programs in the typical classroom setting. The problem is not only limited to the referral process, it is also related to the implementation process, and this falls within the concerns regarding assessment. The need is to identify those areas of concern held by teachers that may affect both the referral process and the implementation process for intervention services. The issue becomes even more concerning when dealing with a child who is an English language learner (ELL) (Wood, 1998).
There is a strong need for collaboration between teachers that provide intervention services and the general education teacher. This is a problem area. Hardin et al. (2007) found that teaching staff felt they were inadequately trained to work with ELL students of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Hardin, Roach-Scott, & Peisner-Feinberg, 2007). If English is the primary language of the staff and there is little or no resource staff that speak the native language of the child in need of services, the problem is significantly compounded, and may result in inappropriate placement. Placing ELL students in the special education classroom due to some misidentification in the referral process actually causes a further deterioration in the ELL students achievement in the long-run (Buysse, Castro, & Peisner-Feinberg, 2010), and is therefore of primary concern in determining the underlying factors in the pre-referral and referral process.
In the pre-referral process, there are discrepancies between what the family believes is being said and what the interpreter is actually saying. This problem is likely due to the interpreter's lack of knowledge regarding not only the referral process but also their lack of training in early childhood education terminology (Hardin, Roach-Scott, & Peisner-Feinberg, 2007). The data methods used across cultures and languages also vary, making it difficult to obtain reliable data upon which to make referral assessments (Collier, 2007).
The Federal Government has addressed students whose first language is not English, defining them as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in Title VII of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994; while the government offered a definition of what qualifies as an LEP student, the burden is on the individual states to determine exactly how they will address students with ELL needs (Schon, Shaftel, & Markham, 2008). As such, the lack of an institutionalized methodology for data-gathering has contributed to the problem of properly assessing and placing students with ELL need. Such data-gathering in the pre-referral and referral stages include home-language surveys, teacher observations, language test assessments, informal assessments, role-playing, physical demonstrations, pictorial illustrations, student portfolio assessments, and other methods (Norris, 1998, p. 28). The diversity of assessments calls for a need for best practices in language minority students.
Defining the Problem of General Education Teacher Compliance
The setting of the general education classroom typically brings to mind an organized routine structured around various curricula activities such as the liberal arts and the sciences. Other activities include physical education, and specialist classes such as information technology or others that the school district may offer. The overriding idea is that the general curriculum is one where the typical student does not need any additional supports (Buell, Hallam, Gamel-McCormick, & Scheer, 1999).
When determining if a student can have intervention needs met in this setting, the onus falls on the general education teacher to integrate the student and their special services guidelines into the typical curriculum atmosphere. The general education teacher is not prepared for this issue. They are not trained in college for teaching ELL's who may also be special needs students, unless that is their particular academic focus (Dev, 1996). A general education teacher trained in teaching early childhood education is not well prepared for the emotional, behavioral, and physical needs that may be necessitated by inclusion of a student with alternative needs into their classroom, nor trained in the various cultural traits of a non-English speaking student (Gersten, Walker, & Darch, 1988).
Therefore, there is no 'buy-in' on the part of the general education teacher to comply with more than the basics of the special services model as it pertains to their typical day in the classroom. They may be understaffed, under-resourced, and under-trained.
Teachers may not be prepared for dealing with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Walker et al. (2004) examined the ideologies attitudes that general education teachers have regarding their ELL students, and the programs that serve these students. Teachers that have racist, ethnocentric attitudes toward their ELL students typically fail to meet the academic needs…