Overidentification of English Language Learners for Special Education: Proposed Solutions Examined

Overidentification of English Language Learners for Special Education: Proposed Solutions Examined

Penelope Debs Keough (National University, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 25
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1177-0.ch009
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Alarming statistics presented by the United States Department of Education reveal a disproportionate number of students of minority language (English language learners) qualify for special education. As far back as 2007, the DOE recognized there was a concerted effort needed to reduce racial and ethnic disproportionality in racial and ethnic identification, placement, and disciplinary actions for minority students' representation in special education. This chapter will examine and address solutions to prevent the over identification of English language learners in special education specifically in the area of identification. As a further objective, the ramifications of this over representation will be examined, and the authors hypothesize about why the over representation occurs. Confusion over the Unz Initiative (1998, Proposition 227) may have inadvertently led to the over identification. A case study, leading to case law, concludes the chapter.
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What happens to a second language learner, commonly referred to as ELL (English Language Learner) is qualified for special education based solely on their lack of English language proficiency? The author, a special educator, hypothesizes a few consequences:

  • 1.

    Academic achievement is slowed often delaying their full potential.

  • 2.

    If placed in a Special Day Class, detrimental behaviors may be learned.

  • 3.

    Possible language delays due to lack of mastery in either language (native tongue vs. English).

It is the general perspective of this chapter to examine and propose solutions to prevent any of the above hypotheses from occurring. The objectives of the chapter are 1) examine and address solutions to prevent overidentification of English Language Learners (ELLs) who qualify for Special Education and 2) discuss the ramifications of the overidentification of second language learners, once placed in special education, as to why the overidentification occurs. As an extension of the above objectives, a description of the Unz Initiative (1998, Proposition 227) will be explored and how, if any, affect the initiative may have had on the overidentification of ELLs for Special Education.



A treatise on the examination of English Language Learners (ELL) overrepresented in special education would be remise if how language is acquired was not described.

One of the foremost researchers in language acquisition is Dr. Stephen Krashen. According to Krashen and Terrell (1983) the four stages of language acquisition are: (1) Preproduction or “silent period” when students are acquiring language (by understanding it) but not producing it; (2) Early Production, the one word response period when students first communicate comprehension orally, (3) Speech Emergence, the beginning of longer, though often grammatically incorrect, utterances; and (4) Intermediate Fluency, students are able to comprehend using full sentence structure, making few errors (p. 26-27).

The transitional process into English is composed of two terms signifying the progression in learning a second language: BICS and CALPS. BICS is known as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills which “involve cognitively undemanding, context-embedded forms of communication.” (McKibbin, 2002, p. 206). For example, asking permission to go outside and play would be an illustration of a Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. However, CALPS, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, is context-reduced. In other words, there are no “prompts” or regalia to emphasize meaning. “According to Cummins (1992c), BICS take approximately two years (in an ideal situation) to develop to a level commensurate with that of native speakers of the langue; CALP takes between five and seven years to develop to a native-like level.” (McKibbin, 2002, p. 204).

The difficulty in overidentification of students whose language is other than English for special education arises in the form and student’s language development level in relation to assessment. Further examination of assessment playing a role in overidentification of ELLS in Special Education will be examined later in the chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

BICS: Basic interpersonal communication skills; refers to the basic communicative fluency achieved by all normal native speakers of a language.

IEP Goals: Individual education plan (IEP) and an end one strives to attain (goal) based on assessment and includes 1) time, 2) task, and 3) measurement.

CALP: Cognitive academic language proficiency; related to literacy and academic achievement.

Unz Initiative: California Proposition 227 states that once English Learners have acquired a good working knowledge of English, they shall be transferred to English Language mainstream classrooms.

English Language Learner (ELL): Students who are learning English when their primary or heritage language is not English.

Linguistics: The study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language.

Curriculum: The body of courses offered in a school or college or in one of its departments.

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