English Learners in Special Education
Updated July 2020
It is important to remember that program accommodations and adaptations
should precede special education referral. Although it is important to
find and service individuals with exceptional needs, it is also important
to be sure that special education referral is necessary. Only individuals
whose needs cannot be met by the general education school program with
appropriate adaptations and EL support are eligible for special education
services. Prior to a referral for special education by a staff member
and/or parent, the site principal, counselor, or designee should utilize
a Student Study Team (SST) or other collaborative process to document
attempts of EL general education program accommodations and/or modifications
and assure that the individual's needs cannot be met in the EL general
The absence of documented attempts to modify the student's general education
class program precludes any placement in special education. Because each
student is guaranteed the right of an education in the least restrictive
environment, evidence shall be presented which shows that attempts have
been made to continue the student in a general education classroom. Special
education shall not act upon a referral without documented program modifications.
(Section 56303, Education Code)
The provision of research-based, early intervention services that are
intensive in nature provided to English learners (ELs) with disabilities
can minimize their being at risk for later school failure.
Early intervention means that "supplementary instructional services
are provided early in students' schooling, and that they are intense enough
to bring at-risk students quickly to a level at which they can profit
from high-quality classroom instruction" (Madden, Slavin, Karweit,
Dolan, & Wasik, 1991). These services are above and beyond the "core"
ELD services an English learner (EL) receives.
It is recommended that the following steps be taken when it is a determined
that an EL student is struggling academically:
- Analyze the School Environment: Determine if there is appropriate
curriculum and instruction for ELs being implemented.
- Provide Pre-referral Intervention, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
(MTSS) or Response to Intervention (RtI): Determine if pre-referral
interventions in areas of weakness have been implemented and documented
over time, to include progress monitoring outcomes.
- Referral to Special Education: Assess in native language & English
and other best practices for bilingual assessment to rule out language
difference versus disability. It is important to ensure that you are
assessing whether or not the student requires special education rather
than assessing the student's English proficiency.
Student Study Team (SST)
When concerns arise for an English Learner (EL), an SST meeting is the
appropriate place to begin. The SST is designed to offer immediate assistance
and suggestions for teachers, parents, and support staff for a student
who is not making progress in the classroom and/or school.
When convening the meeting, determine whether an interpreter is needed
and be sure to consult with EL staff as part of the SST process. The SST
consists of a group of professionals and parents who will discuss pupil
strengths and problems and possible interventions. The team needs to determine
what steps should be taken to help the student be successful in school.
Members of the team may include general education teacher/s, bilingual
personnel, a school site administrator, the student's parent, special
education staff, school psychologist, school nurse, speech/language pathologist,
interprets (as needed), and the student (if appropriate).
An action plan will be developed listing concerns, prior interventions,
accommodations and/or modifications that have been considered, or will
be implemented, along with the individuals responsible for implementation
with a follow-up date to review student progress. The team should determine
if the perceived weakness is due to external factors, for example, inappropriate
instruction, normal process of second language acquisition, lack of formal
education, etc., or a possible internal factor such as a learning disability,
language disorder, etc. When describing the specific difficulty the English
learner is experiencing, the difficulty needs to be measurable and observable.
In addition, data should be collected regarding the identified difficulty
across different contexts such as multiple subject areas, varied environments
such as home and school, and in both the primary language and English.
After identifying specific challenges the student is experiencing, the
next step is to determine why the student is having this difficulty. If
an English learner is experiencing difficulties only in English, but not
in the primary language, then the problem could be due to external factors
rather than a disability.
In addition to the pre-referral considerations and SST process identified
in the Procedures Guide for all students, for the EL student the following
additional issues need to be included in the discussion:
- Identifying the student's needs within the SST systematic process
of reviewing the history of the EL student (educational history including
type of schooling received and academic progress in country of origin,
number of years student has been in this country, number of years student
has been in U.S. schools, immigration patterns, cultural differences)
that impact learning.
- Review of California English Language Development Test (CELDT).
- CELDT will continue to be required for transitional kindergarten
through grade 12 (TK-12) newly enrolled students whose primary language
is not English within 30 days after enrollment in a California public
school for the first time.
- The CELDT must also be given once each year to ELs until they
- Most students with disabilities will be able to participate in
the CELDT. For those students whose disabilities make it impossible
for them to participate in one or more domains of the CELDT, their
IEP teams may recommend accommodations, modifications, or an alternate
assessment (See EC 56345). The CDE does not make specific recommendations
about which alternate assessment instruments to use. The appropriate
alternate assessment must be identified annually in a student's
IEP, and the IEP team should include a representative with second
language expertise whenever possible." Recent Q & A guidance
from OSEP and OCR in July 2014, indicates that alternate assessments
to CELDT should be objective, assess in all domains to include listening,
speaking, and writing, as well as provide an indication of whether
or not the student is fluent in English.
- Information acquired through formal and informal general education
- Information from parents regarding student's previous education and
student's progress both in school and at home.
- Current language proficiency in his/her primary language and in English.
- Is the student presently in an EL program? If not, has the student
ever been in a bilingual or EL program?
- Current classroom instruction including participation in EL instruction
and any accommodations and modifications that have been implemented.
- Identify applicable community agencies and services that might be
- Identify school based general education interventions and/or programs,
including EL supports, that might be useful resources.
- Developing or updating program accommodations and review EL instruction
as it relates to English Language Development (ELD) and specially designed
academic instruction (SDAIE).
- Areas where the student is successful and areas that need support
- Creating and recording an action plan for student progress.
If additional accommodations are required the SST will reconvene to discuss
the student's progress and determine if a special education assessment
is warranted. At that time any data collected as a result of the action
plan from previous meetings should be reviewed. The team should determine
if the student is making educational progress, if current interventions
should continue, and if new interventions should be added.
Special Education Referral
Unless the student has a severe disability, including but not limited
to severe vision and hearing impairments, severe physical impairment,
severe mental retardation, autism, or severe health impairment, the student
should be allowed sufficient time to acquire English proficiency and receive
appropriate academic instruction in English language arts and math. It
is critical to differentiate between a student who is not achieving in
the classroom because English is not his/her primary language and a student
who is not achieving due to a disability.
Make sure parents of EL students understand the purpose of special education
in the United States and that correspondence is provided in the family's
primary language if necessary, including on the proposed assessment plan.
When identifying an EL student for special education, it is crucial that
the normal developmental process for language acquisition is not mistaken
for a learning disability. If a learning disability exists, it will be
present in the student's primary language as well as second language.
EL students are covered by the same mandates regarding special education
as any other student. The only difference is that accommodations need
to be made to address the student's dominant language. In addition, California
Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System program
and CELDT eligible students shall be permitted to take the test with accommodations
or modifications if specified in the eligible student's IEP. For more
detail on allowable accommodations and modifications please refer to the
California Department of Education's website: www.cde.ca.gov, Testing
Variations, Accommodations and Modifications Matrix, California Code of
Regulations, Title 5, Education, for each specific assessment program.
Psychological, educational and speech/language assessments need to be
administered in the student's dominant language. Dominant language testing
should be administered by qualified individuals who are knowledgeable
about the language as well as the culture. If such a person is unavailable,
trained interpreters may be used, under the supervision of the credentialed
assessor. If it is not feasible to administer the assessment in the primary
language and an interpreter is used this must be documented in the assessment
report. If an interpreter is to be used, the reason should be noted on
the assessment plan and explained to parents.
Districts are obligated to provide information to parents of EL students
just as they would for English only students. This may require parent
notifications, parent rights and the IEP to be translated into the parent's
primary language. If the assessment reports are lengthy, a translated
summary might be considered. Interpreters should be provided for the IEP
meetings. Districts need to ensure that reasonable steps have been taken
to provide parents of EL students with equal access to information in
a comprehensible manner. (Written translations may not always be possible
for every language, but a process must be in place to provide the necessary
information to parents.)
If the student qualifies for special education services, service delivery
options need to be discussed for the least restrictive environment. The
IEP must include linguistically appropriate goals and objectives. The
California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) requires that teachers
of English learners (ELs), to include special education teachers, attain
English learner authorization. The type of certificate, permit, or credential
required depends on the type of service and/or instruction being provided
to ELs. Per EC 44258.9 credentialing requirements are listed in the chart
from the CTC Administrator's Assignment Manual (2017).
If an EL program is available, these classes may be taken in conjunction
with the special education program. Collaboration between special education,
EL programs and general education is encouraged. The student's IEP must
include a description of how the program will use various activities and
strategies to meet his/her language needs. The goal is to develop English
language proficiency so that the EL student can function independently
in the mainstream classroom setting. To this end, all English learners
are provided with English language development instruction targeted to
their English proficiency level and a standards-based curriculum is used
for all English language learners.
34 CFR 300.304
34 CFR 300.306
30 EC 44253
5 CCR 11512
Click here to download and print "Procedures Guide-English
Learners in Special Education" July 2020
Click here to download and print "Meeting the Needs
of English Learners with Disabilities" Resource Book