English Learners in Special Education

Updated July 2020

Pre-Referral Process
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 education program.
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:

  1. Analyze the School Environment: Determine if there is appropriate curriculum and instruction for ELs being implemented.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 are reclassified.
    • 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 classroom assessment
  • 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 useful resources
  • 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 and/or improvement.
  • 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
CFR 300.534
30 EC 44253
5 CCR 11512
EC 56303

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