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TURNING THE TABLES ON “OVERIDENTIFICATION”: Report Finds Limited-English-Proficient Students Underrepresented in Special Education Programs

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"This is an issue that is going to continue to face the school system. We're unprepared," said Leonard M. Baca.

It has been well documented that black students are overrepresented in special education programs, and historically, limited-English-proficient students sometimes were as well. But a new study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education has concluded that limited-English-proficient (LEP) students are now underrepresented in such programs. Nationwide, 13.5 percent of all students receive special education, but only 9.2 percent of English-language learners (ELL) do.

As reported in Education Week, some districts are reluctant to assign ELLs to special education classes because they fear being considered unfair or mistaking a lack of English skills for a disability. The report Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students with Disabilities is the first to provide information about English-language learners with disabilities based on a nationally representative sample. Of the 3,852,540 limited-English-proficient students in the United States, 76.9 percent are native Spanish speakers and approximately 10 percent are students with disabilities.

Teachers need training to meet the needs of these students, but many do not receive it. Nationwide, only six of ten special education teachers who teach at least three ELL students had received relevant training in the past five years. Only one state (Illinois) provides an endorsement for teachers in both bilingual and special education.

The urgency of meeting the needs of LEP learners continues to grow. According to Education Week, the study showed that from 1992 to 2002 the number of students studying English as a second language in U.S. schools increased by 72 percent, while the number of teachers who had at least one such student in their classrooms more than tripled.

“This is an issue that is going to continue to face the school system. We’re unprepared,” said Leonard M. Baca, a professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s master’s program in bilingual special education.

For a summary of the study’s findings, visit the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition on the Web athttp://www.ncela.gwu.edu/miscpubs/siac/descript/part4.htm. The full 484-page report is scheduled for posting on the site later this month.

For the referenced Education Week article see http://www.edweek.com/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=18Language.h23.

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