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The Special Education Referral Process for English Language Learners: The Role of Child Study and Multidisciplinary Team Meetings Janette K. Klingner University.

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Presentation on theme: "The Special Education Referral Process for English Language Learners: The Role of Child Study and Multidisciplinary Team Meetings Janette K. Klingner University."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Special Education Referral Process for English Language Learners: The Role of Child Study and Multidisciplinary Team Meetings Janette K. Klingner University of Colorado at Boulder Beth Harry University of Miami

2 Acknowledgements: This research was conducted with support from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Grant No. H324C

3 Challenges to the Referral Process We still lack adequate measures of language proficiency. Students appear to be proficient in English long before they have fully developed cognitive academic language proficiency. Educators often misinterpret ELLs’ lack of full proficiency in English as low intelligence or as a language or learning disability. An over-reliance on IQ test scores when making placement decisions Too little consideration for other factors that may be affecting a student’s performance.

4 The Special Education Referral Process

5 Terms The CST might also be called the Student Study Team (SST) or other similar names. The multidisciplinary team is often called the M-Team or the Individualized Educational Plan (or Program) (IEP) Team. Meetings of the multidisciplinary team are sometimes referred to as “staffings.”

6 Previous Research In the 1980s several investigations were conducted of CST and multidisciplinary team meetings. Mehan, Hartwick, and Meihls (1986; Mehan, 1991) focused on how team decisions were made. –They concluded that “placement outcomes were more ratifications of actions that had taken place at previous stages of the decision- making process than decisions reached in formal meetings” (p. 164).

7 Prereferral strategies seem to be unevenly or rarely applied. The preeminent role of the psychologist in this process has been well documented. Several researchers have studied group dynamics and suggested ways to enhance the decision-making process. Most parents do not actively participate in meetings, instead spending most of their time listening to professionals.

8 Purpose To investigate the referral process and the CST and multidisciplinary team meetings for English language learners. –We wished to learn how school personnel determined if ELLs who were struggling with reading had learning disabilities. –We wondered to what extent those involved in the process understood second language acquisition, and to what extent consideration was given to language issues. –We were interested in the roles of various team members and how decisions were made. –We also wanted to find out more about the interactions among professionals and parents.

9 The data for this study are from a large, three-year ethnographic study of the decision-making processes that result in the overrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education in a major, urban school district in a southern state (Harry & Klingner, in press).

10 Sampling 8 schools (out of 12 purposively selected to represent a range in ethnicity, socio-economic status, language, and schools’ rates of referral for the larger study) 19 English Language Learners –K – 5 grade levels –11 Hispanic (the term preferred in that part of the country) who spoke Spanish as their 1 st language –6 Haitian who spoke Haitian Creole –1 Middle Eastern who spoke Arabic –ESOL levels ranged from 1 (just beginning to acquire English) to 5 (just exited from ESOL and considered at least moderately proficient in English)

11 School Demographics (in percentages): SchoolEthnicity of Students Free or Reduced Lunch % MMR % EH% LD WhiteBlackHispanic

12 School Demographics (in percentages): SchoolEthnicity of Students Free or Reduced Lunch % MR% EH% LD WhiteBlackHispanic

13 Data Sources Primary data source: –Observations notes from 21 CST meetings and staffings 12 first CST meetings, 2 second CST meetings, 7 staffings. Other data sources (from larger study): –Observations Classrooms during instruction (627) –Interviews 272 open-ended or semi-structured interviews Notes from 84 informal conversations –Documents IEPs Psychological reports Students’ test protocols and work samples School district guidelines and policies

14 Findings Though we noted variability across schools, our data yielded some clear patterns regarding CST and multidisciplinary teams and the referral process for ELLs. –The district had developed detailed guidelines for how the process should be carried out (that followed the letter of the law); yet how these guidelines were carried out varied.

15 Differentiating between English Language Acquisition and LD Confusion about when to refer: –Some psychologists and school personnel said they were not allowed to refer ELLs still at beginning levels of English proficiency: “The district will not allow psychological testing of young children at ESOL levels 1 & 2.” –Yet the district administrator in charge of this process assured us that this was not the case: “No, not at all. No, no. At every meeting…we say it.”

16 Not knowing when a child is ready to be tested only in English: –Though district guidelines specify it takes about 7 years before a child can be tested only in English, some personnel did not believe this: “Actually, actually they are proficient before 7 years.” –Children were tested only in English before 7 years. Reina’s IQ score was determined to be 51, using the WISC-III, yet she spoke Spanish as her first language and her mother only spoke Spanish. Because she had just exited from ESOL (after 3 ½ years) all of her testing was done in English and no mention was made of her not being a native speaker at her staffing. –Over-reliance on a parent’s or teacher’s opinion about a student’s English proficiency in SOME cases.

17 Misinterpreting limited English proficiency as low IQ or LD: –Lack of consideration given to language issues. Many seemed quick to attribute a child’s difficulties to presumed intrinsic deficits rather than a lack of full English proficiency. –Many confused language acquisition for processing disorders, low intelligence, problems with attention, or LD. –Students described as having poor auditory memory or not able to follow directions without any mention of whether this could be related to the language acquisition process: Paul was ESOL 4, yet there was no mention of language proficiency in the psychologist’s report or at his staffing. He was described as having “auditory processing deficits” through English-language testing. It was determined he had LD, though his achievement scores were actually higher than his IQ score. –Not enough attention given to students’ skills in their native language.

18 Over-reliance on test scores: –School personnel expressed confidence in the ability of the psychological evaluation to “diagnose disabilities.” –Little consideration given to other factors that might provide alternative explanations for students’ behaviors. –Personnel did not take into account the ecology of the classroom from which a child was being referred. –Observations by someone other than the classroom teacher were not conducted. –Psychologists very rarely observed students before conducting an evaluation: “Only if I feel that I need to. The whole morning with them (testing) gives you a good idea, you know it does. And you rely on the teacher’s comments and you rely on your notes.”

19 “Alternative Strategies” The quality of attention given to pre-referral strategies and the value of the actual strategies was often minimal: –“Write first and last name without model; identify rhyming words; hold book, paper, scissors.” –Claude’s teacher was told to just “pick the most basic alternative strategies on the list.” In some schools the quality of attention to strategies was better: –“I look at a form the psychologist is holding out to me. It has a list of alternative strategies: Move around room, touch base with student. Provide visuals. Reduce distractions. Present both auditory and visual cues.” Six students were referred immediately for a formal evaluation at their first CST meetings.

20 Role of Psychologists Psychologists usually did not attend the 1 st CST meeting, but sometimes attended the 2 nd. When present, their word carried the most weight. Psychologists conducted all of the achievement, modality, and intelligence testing. Tests used: –The WISC III (in both English and Spanish) seemed to be the intelligence test of choice by most. Alternative IQ tests, including the K-ABC, the UNIC, or the Differential Ability Scales, were used by some: “You would try to use a non-verbal type of test to get a score that is not decreased by the language. But I like to use the WISC III anyway because… I want to look at the verbal. My favorite is the WISC III; that is my favorite because you want to look at how the child does on both scales.”

21 Role of Bilingual Assessor Supposed to evaluate all students at ESOL Levels 3, 4, and 5 (who have been exited from the program for less than 2 years). Determined in which language a child should be tested and if the child’s difficulties were due to confusion learning a new language: –“My role as a bilingual assessor is to determine if the child’s difficulties are due to (learning a second) language or due to other factors…” Did not attend CST meetings or staffings and their reports were rarely mentioned. It seemed that once a child had undergone a bilingual assessment, personnel felt there was no additional need to attend to this feature. For example:

22 –In Rex’s case the staffing specialist said, "I see he's ESOL Level 4. Do you think that has a bearing on this?" The teacher responded, "No, he speaks English well." The psychologist said that Rex was tested in Spanish as well as English because he is bilingual and because he is low in academics. She added, “He preferred English during the testing.” Yet only the scores of the English testing were reported during the meeting or included in the psychologist’s written report, and no further mention was made of the possible influence of language on Rex’s IQ score of 74.

23 Interactions with Parents We observed little evidence of strong parental involvement in the process. We saw a range of interactions across schools, and even within schools. We noted several problems, including negativity, a lack of consistent translation services, ignoring and unprofessionalism, and insensitivity. In general, we detected a pervasive negative attitude towards families and communities, and the tendency to blame parents for their children’s problems.

24 Decision-Making at Staffings Decisions seemed to have been made ahead of time. –When a child was going to be moved to another school, a faculty member from that school was typically in attendance to explain the program to the parent. When asked, psychologists emphasized that it is a team decision, but also acknowledged that they have a lot of influence over the outcome. One psychologist explained:

25 –I test. I write my report. I write my recommendations and I give it to the staffing specialist… We discuss it and we come to a decision. And we discuss it prior to the meeting just to make sure we are providing the best for the child. And once we have a unified front for the parents, we can bring them in just so they know what is going on.

26 Conclusion In principle, the CST process is intended to provide a network of support and prevent inappropriate referrals. Yet in practice most students seemed pushed towards testing, based on an assumption that poor academic performance or behavioral difficulties have their origins within the child and indicate a need for special education. We found tremendous variation between what was written on a checklist and the quality of what actually transpired during a meeting. These differences were influenced by the intentions, knowledge, skills, and commitment of CST or multidisciplinary team members. All of the factors we have described point to aspects of the process that should be improved.

27 Epilogue The school district in which we conducted our research has shown a strong commitment to working with us to improve the referral process: –New procedures require specific goals, target dates, and rigorous monitoring of progress for each child brought to the SST. –We believe that this district can provide a model to others in terms of their collaboration with us as university researchers as well as the collaborative model they are developing between general and special education district administrators and school personnel.

28 For More Information Contact: Janette Klingner University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education 249 UCB Boulder, CO Phone:


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