Why Are EL Students Overrepresented in Special Education Programs?

By Patricia Dereli

Is overrepresentation of EL students in special education programs a problem?
The practice of placing EL students in special education settings in lieu of linguistic/language learning settings is a problem because it deprives EL students of opportunities such as targeted English language learning. EL students are systematically denied opportunities to enroll in accelerated classes that will prepare them for college and career success. Over-representation of EL students in special education programs and/or flat-out denying EL services to EL students can place students on an unequal track relative to their non-EL peers. Also, access to general education courses is systematically denied (Patton, 1988). The essential question to ask: is limited English masking or mimicking a learning disability? If it is masking a learning disability, EL students do not get the necessary dual support. If limited English is mimicking, then there are inflated numbers of EL students in special education programs.    
There are multiple layers to this problem. Denying an EL student who is correctly identified as needing special education is often a problem as well. When a student does not get English language or bilingual support, the only language of instruction is English. The student will have lower comprehension of the content because the content is not being supported pedagogically with EL or bilingual methods. Also, students understand that their native language is not welcomed within the special education program because it serves no purpose. This is not the intent of the special education program, but inevitably, the EL student is hindered from speaking in the native language. This will negatively impact self-esteem and create a feeling of being “other.”  The continued disconnect from the use of the native language may also create a feeling that the native language is “less than” English and could contribute to the feeling of lowered self-worth (Nieto, 1996).
How is over-representation of EL students in special education programs defined?

EL student over-representation in special education programs is defined by being a member of an ethnic group or a group other than the majority group, and as such, will affect the probability of being identified with a particular disability condition (Coutinho & Oswald, 2000).
Over-representation of a minority group does not necessarily mean that there is a large percentage of African American students in special education or a significant percentage of EL students in special education. Over-representation means that the percentage of the minority group (ex. African Americans, EL students) in the program is larger than the percentage of that group in the school as a whole (Reschly, 1991). EL students become over-represented in special education programs because school (PreK-12 schools) staff fail to identify the difference between language proficiency and special education markers. School staff often assume that a student’s lack of English proficiency and inability to communicate effectively in English means that the student is showing signs of cognitive impairment. When testing an EL student for special education in English, the student will show the need for special education services for the mere fact of not being able to understand the test questions in the English language.
The issue of over-representation of EL students comes from two important landmark decisions. The first empirical decision was The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (IDEA). This act declared that due to the developments in the training of teachers and in diagnostic and instructional procedures and methods that have advanced to the point that, given appropriate funding, state and local educational agencies can and will provide effective special education and related services to meet the needs of handicapped children (1975).

In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled in the Lau versus Nichols civil rights case that San Francisco schools had to provide significant assistance to Chinese-speaking children to access the curriculum. The Chinese-speaking students did not have the ability to speak or understand the English language proficiently, and therefore, the school district was ordered to take their limited English language ability into consideration when teaching curriculum. This ruling opened the door for English language learners across the nation (Zehr, 2007). These decisions were crucial in advancing marginalized children, but schools had to figure out how to implement them. School districts across the nation had little guidance.

Why does overrepresentation happen?

Why are EL students overrepresented in special education programs? Is over-representation of EL students in the special education program a problem of equity? Districts must see EL student over-representation as discrimination and/or an equity problem. The first step is to see EL students as a marginalized community. It is widely accepted that schools reinforce societal inequalities of social structure found in each country—namely the United States in this case (Collins, 2009). In other words, schools prolong and even exacerbate social inequities so profoundly that national policies have been created in emergency fashion to halt further detrimental consequences. For example, in 2014 the Obama Administration issued a Dear Colleague Letter from the Office of Civil Rights directed to all school districts prohibiting them from discriminating against students based on personal characteristics such as race. The Civil Rights Data Collection found that students of certain racial groups, such as African Americans, were up to three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended (2021).

EL students are not typically seen as a marginalized group or not as marginalized as other students of color and therefore not a population of major concern. The reason behind this is because EL students are alienated from the rest of the school community—they are in hiding. This happens because EL students, in my experience at the high school level, are coming from war-torn regions, areas of persistent violence, and personal experiences of trauma. They therefore self-alienate or exhibit behaviors that promote others to alienate them (the EL student). EL students have become proficient at, often out of life-or-death circumstances, hiding and running from dangerous authorities. EL students and families know how to survive, but these skills come at a price. Often, EL students and their families will comply with school services that are assigned to them without argument. Also, EL families, from my experience, tend to avoid much contact with school officials.
Also, speaking from my own experience at the secondary level and citing Antunes, schools have resources to support EL students emotionally and help them acclimate to the American culture (2021). Schools have social workers, bilingual teachers, counselors, and faculty with advanced degrees that can assist EL students with the dissociation and trauma they are experiencing. However, I witness that EL students are often dismissed because they are hard to understand linguistically, culturally, and they often do not advocate for their rights or needs.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) does not consider EL students to be a minority population of concern when considering levels of disproportionality (over-representation) of racial and ethnic groups within school districts in special education programs. There are seven racial and ethnic groups that ISBE considers when evaluating concerning levels of disproportionality:  Hispanic/Latino; American Indian or Alaskan native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; and two or more races (IDEA, 2019).

If EL students are overrepresented and go unnoticed by school leaders and ISBE state leaders, there will not only be unequal educational opportunities for the misidentified EL student, but the more misidentified EL students are placed disproportionately leading to over-representation, the more will have lasting generational effects for the EL students’ families. EL students in special education programs receive inadequate language instruction because they are not being taught by licensed EL/Bilingual teachers and are often initially placed in special education programs because the special education assessments are culturally biased and pose greater challenges for non-native English speakers (Wagner et al., 2005).

When a mis-identified EL student is placed in special education, the curriculum reflects a non-college bound track at the high school level. As I mentioned earlier, this has generational implications because if a student is not college bound, it is likely that his/her child will not be college bound. Basically stated, school curriculum and classroom procedures reflect society and future work expectations, and this is transmitted to subsequent generations (Collins, 2009). Bowles and Gintis also explain a concept called the correspondence principle which is structuring social interactions and individual rewards at school to replicate the future workplace (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). If EL students are overrepresented and mis-identified in the special education program, then those students are being prepared for a lower place in a workplace hierarchy. There is a difference in the level of complexity and skill required between the special education curriculum and non-special education curriculum. If an EL student is placed in a special education program on the pretense that he/she has cognitive impairments versus language learning needs, then he/she will be denied curricular opportunities that will have lifelong lasting effects.

Moving forward

The expectation for an EL student is that there will be an eventual reclassification from EL student to former EL student. There are significant benefits to being considered proficient in English, especially while in high school. When an EL student becomes proficient in English, it is because he/she passed the ACCESS for ELLs test with a composite score of 4.8. If the EL student also takes an eligible test in their native language when trying to attain the Seal of Biliteracy in Illinois and passes the eligible test, the (former) EL student will get the Seal of Biliteracy on his/her high school diploma. If the student decides to become an Illinois teacher of a foreign language in the language they received the Seal of Biliteracy for, then the former EL student will not have to take Proficiency Language Test when getting the content area teaching license. However, if the student is mis-identified as a special education student, it is doubtful that he/she will ever be reclassified as a former EL student. I have never seen this happen in my 18 years of teaching experience. EL students that have been possibly mis-identified (or even properly identified) do not get their linguistic or cultural needs met by an EL/bilingual teacher. 

The other questions that must be answered are whether EL students are being mis-identified and over-represented due to cognitive and behavioral disabilities—which could be attributed to faulty assessments. In addition, it is necessary to truly discover if EL students are being over-represented due to achievement issues and behavior problems caused by previous traumas. If an EL student is not getting EL services, social/emotional services, and the least restrictive environments that he/she is entitled to, then he/she is missing access to higher education that non-EL student peers have access to. Statistics show that up to 70% of all Latino and Latina high school students are enrolled in classes that do not meet the minimum course requirements for in-state 4-year universities (Collatos et al., 2004). From my own experience teaching at the high school level, the majority of EL students do not have the necessary high school courses to meet college entrance requirements. EL students that are mis-identified and placed in special education exacerbate the problem by further limiting their course options and curricular rigor. 

The solution lies in continual data collection and improvement. EL students need to be part of ISBE’s list of minority students to consider for disproportionality. Collaboration needs to take place between EL and special education departments within schools and sender school districts. Oftentimes, departments and schools in school districts operate in isolation, but students come from sender schools and are entitled to multiple services. Assessments for special education services need to be developed specifically for the EL student. Cultural and linguistic factors must be considered when creating these assessments—simple translations of current special education assessments made for non-EL students are not sufficient.       

Antunes, M. A. (2021). The impact of loss and alienation in English language learners. Radical Teacher, 120, 42–49. https://doi.org/10.5195/rt.2021.886

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2002). Schooling in capitalist America revisited. Sociology of Education, 75(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.2307/3090251

Collatos, A., Morrell, E., Nuno, A., & Lara, R. (2004). Critical sociology in K-16 early intervention: Remaking latino pathways to higher education. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 3(2), 164–179. https://doi.org/10.1177/1538192704262989

Collins, J. (2009). Social reproduction in classrooms and schools. Annual Review of Anthropology, 38(1), 33–48. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085242

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Coutinho, M. J., & Oswald, D. P. (2000b). Disproportionate representation in special education: A synthesis and recommendations. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 9(2), 135–156. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1009462820157

Individuals With Disabilities Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1416(a)(3) (C (2019).
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Reschly, D. J. (1991). The effects of placement litigation on psychological and education classification. Diagnostique, 17(1), 6–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/153450849101700102

Sander, W., & Testa, W. (2013). Parents’ education, school‐Age Children and household location in American cities. Papers in Regional Science, 94(3), 573–595. https://doi.org/10.1111/pirs.12087

Special education significant disporportionality. Illinois State Board of Education. (n.d.). https://www.isbe.net/significantdisproportionality

U.S. Govt. Print. Off., Education for all handicapped children act of 1975: Public law 94-142, 94th Congress, S.6, November 29, 1975, an Act to amend the education of the handicapped act .. (1975). Washington.

US Department of Education (ED). (2021, August 3). Joint - Dear Colleague letter. Home. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201401-title-vi.html

Wagner, R. K., Francis, D. J., & Morris, R. D. (2005). Identifying English language learners with learning disabilities: Key challenges and approaches. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 20(1), 6–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5826.2005.00115.x

Zehr, M. A. (2007). Examining the Impact of Lau v. Nichols. Education Week.

Patricia Dereli is a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Fall 2023 - Volume 51, Number 2