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The Problem Schools Have Accurately Identifying English Learners

Federal law requires states and school districts to identify if children need English-learner services and special education services to equally access instruction.

But despite the legal requirements and the evolving research and supports to help educators do better evaluations, accurately identifying English learners who also need special education services remains a persistent problem.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report published in May underscores this.

The report found that while most states use federal guidance on how to identify English learners, and that most provide schools and districts assistance to help do the evaluations, there’s scant follow-up. That means many states don’t actually know if schools are accurately distinguishing between whether students are experiencing language acquisition issues, specific learning disabilities, or speech-language impairment.

Of the 41 states providing such assistance, only 17 reported taking steps to determine how well schools and districts are able to distinguish between language acquisition needs and disability-related needs. Another 16 provide no such follow up.

“That seems to me to be a place where there’s an opportunity for a lot of states to do better,” said Jacqueline Nowicki, a director in the GAO’s education, workforce, and income security team.

Accurate identification of English learners and English learners with disabilities is critical

The GAO survey went to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only Utah did not participate. (Participation was not required.)

The agency sought to determine how states and districts identify English learners and how they ensure that they are accurately identifying English learners with disabilities.

One of the biggest challenges involved in this identification work is the evolving demographics of the nation’s English learners. While the latest federal data show that Spanish remains English learners’ most prevalent home language, states and districts must ensure that home language surveys account for the hundreds of languages present in their communities to best address students’ language needs, Nowicki said.

“Given the increasing diversity of the public school population, including languages that are spoken at home, it is not surprising to me that a lot of states may struggle in having resources available to translate their home language surveys into languages spoken by so many students,” she said.

Identification of students’ linguistic needs—as well as any special education services they require—must be done in a timely manner, said Lisa Hsin, a developmental scientist and senior researcher at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.

The same goes for deciding when English learners no longer require language acquisition services—known as reclassification—to ensure those students receive appropriate support and access to quality education, Hsin said.

One way to ensure that identification work goes smoothly is to have states provide assistance and then follow up on how well districts are faring. Such oversight may not guarantee that all districts in a state are identifying students correctly, Hsin said, but without such oversight and district data, states may not accurately gauge how well their districts are identifying students.

Historically, districts have underserved English learners and students with disabilities, including facing technical issues in accessing classes during remote instruction at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nowicki said.

It’s why she sees an opportunity for more states to ensure that their districts are correctly identifying and then providing appropriate services to students.

“We can have all the laws and all the requirements and all the good intentions that we want. But unless people are diligent about making sure that what they’re doing is actually achieving the purpose or the intent, we’re not going to get very far in making sure that all kids have equal access to a quality education,” Nowicki said.

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