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Appropriate Eligibility Determinations for English Language Learners Suspected of Having Reading-related Learning Disabilities: Linking Student, Schooling, Early Intervention, Referral, and Assessment Data. alba. Cheryl Y. Wilkinson Alba A. Ortiz Phyllis Robertson-Courtney

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Appropriate Eligibility Determinations

  • for English Language Learners Suspected of
  • Having Reading-related Learning Disabilities:
  • Linking Student, Schooling,
  • Early Intervention,
  • Referral, and Assessment Data


Cheryl Y. Wilkinson

Alba A. Ortiz

Phyllis Robertson-Courtney

The University of Texas at Austin

Millicent I. Kushner

University of Maryland


Field Initiated Study: Best Practices in Oral Language and Reading Instruction for Bilingual Exceptional Students (BESt Practices Project)

Primary purposes of this longitudinal study:

-Describe characteristics of Spanish-speaking students identified as having reading-related learning disabilities

-Make recommendations regarding best practices in referral, assessment, and instruction for these students

*The project was funded by the U. S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. This does not suggest an endorsement of the results nor does it reflect the position of OSERS.



Participating School District

•Urban district in Central Texas with an ideal configuration of services:

-Well-established bilingual education programs

-Bilingual assessment personnel

-Bilingual special education classrooms




•Parent permission obtained for 70 of the 90 ELLs with reading-related LD in the district’s 10 BSE classrooms (73%)

•Eligible students had IEPs that documented amount of time allocated to reading instruction in a BSE classroom

•These students followed several paths to an LD classification:


-LD/Speech Impaired

-Speech Impaired to LD

-Early Childhood Intervention to LD


Subgroup Sample: “Pure LDs”

•21 students initially classified as LD who continued to be served as LD only

11 (52%) males

10 (48%) females

•Half were born in Mexico

•Spanish was the primary language



Language Proficiency Data

6 (29%) Fluent Spanish Speaking

12 (57%) Limited Spanish Speaking

3 (14%) Non-Spanish Speaking

18 (86%) Non-English Speaking

(14%) Limited English Speaking


Grade at Referral

Grade at referral (n=20; missing data for 1 student)

1st 4 (19%)

2nd 9 (43%)

3rd 7 (33%)


Data Sources

•Cumulative folders

•Bilingual education eligibility committee records

•Special education records


Two categories of results:

•District’s eligibility determinations

•Eligibility determinations based on an Expert Panel Review


StandardizedAssessment Instruments: IQ

18 (86%) Non-verbal IQ

11 Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal

Intelligence (CTONI)

5 Non-verbal Scale of the Kauffman

Assessment Battery for Children (K-ABC)

2 Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (TONI-2)

(14%) Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children

All scores were reported as within the normal range.


Achievement Testing

16 (76%) Batería Woodcock-Muñoz: Pruebas de aprovechamiento-Revisada

4 (19%) Combination of the Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery--Revised and the math subtest of the older version of Batería.

1 (5%) The Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery-Revised


IQ-Achievement Discrepancies

  • •All students' FIEs documented one or more significant discrepancies between intelligence and achievement.
    • [In Texas, a difference of 16 or more points using a scale with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15]
  • .
  • •Discrepancies were documented in basic reading, reading comprehension, written expression, math calculation and math reasoning.


Multidisciplinary Team

Eligibility Determination

•Discrepancies between IQ and achievement appeared to be the basis for eligibility determinations.

•Even though a second option which allowed the eligibility determination to be based on other, less formal, criteria was available, this option was not used.

•All of the students met the legal criteria for classification as LD.


Expert Panel Review

Student data were reviewed by three university-level bilingual special education faculty who independently gave their opinion as to whether the 21 participants qualified as LD.

Ph.D. School Psychology

Ph.D Special Education

Average 19 years of BSE experience


Data Analysis

Each expert conducted an independent review of student records and made an eligibility recommendation (Qualify/Do not qualify).

Panel members reached the same eligibility decision for 13 students (62%).

For the other 8 cases, the panel met as a group to reach consensus, and documented the reasons for their mutual decision.


Expert Panel Eligibility Determinations

  • When information other than IQ-achievement discrepancies was considered, students could be divided into three distinct groups:
  • -Students with LD (n=6)
  • -Students with disabilities, but for whom an LD classification was questioned (n=6)
  • -Students with significant learning problems, for whom an LD classification was questioned based on the presence of other factors that could explain the difficulty (n=9)

Characteristics of Students with Reading-related LD (n=6)

In addition to significant IQ-achievement discrepancies, other evidence was presented to eliminate competing factors or hypotheses that might explain learning problems:


Characteristics of Students with Reading-related LD, continued

-Students had had consistent schooling, but achievement was still substantially below grade level;

-Significant reading difficulties were documented over time;

-Referrals occurred after specialized interventions in the context of general education failed to resolve reading difficulties.


Characteristics of Students with Reading-related LD, continued

-Multiple data sources corroborated reading difficulties (e.g., results of the FIE corroborated reasons for referral; results of formal and informal assessments consistent)

-Teachers reported that students exhibited behaviors commonly associated with LD (e.g., poor fine motor skills, disorganization, inability to work independently, difficulty completing tasks, etc.).

-Parents reported similar problems at home (e.g., cannot follow directions, forgets, inappropriate behavior, etc.).


Characteristics of Students for Whom an LD Classification was Questioned (n=6)

Expert Panel agreed with the MDTs that this group of students qualified for special education services.

But, additional assessment and data gathering was needed to confirm or refute an LD classification.


Characteristics of Students for Whom an LD Classification was Questioned (continued)

There was significant variation on a case-by-case basis among this group of students.

For example,

-the teacher requested a speech and language evaluation but it was not conducted.

-the student had experienced a head trauma, but nothing in the records indicated a medical follow-up to eliminate a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.


Characteristics of Students for Whom an LD Classification was Questioned (continued)

While the panelists recognized that a disability label does not dictate the type of services students are provided, without an accurate diagnosis, students might not receive the services needed to address the root of the problem.


Characteristics of Students whom the Panel did not Qualify for Special Education

The panel did not concur with MDT eligibility decisions in 9 of the 21 cases (43%).

The issues that led the expert panel to question eligibility decisions can be grouped into the following categories.


Missing or Incomplete Data

•Information in student records was simply insufficient for the panel to reach an eligibility decision.

•The data most likely to be missing or incomplete were health, social, and school histories (over time)

•Language dominance and proficiency data were inconsistent, out of date, or unavailable.


Significant Life Events

Some students had experienced significant life events that could have impacted their performance. Records did not indicate that these factors were considered.


-separation from parents who immigrated to U.S.

-death of a parent


L Prereferral Intervention

•Prereferral interventions were not documented.

•When documented,

-information about the outcomes of interventions was not recorded; or,

-successful general education interventions were abandoned in favor of special education referral.



•Conducted in English, although the student was receiving reading instruction in Spanish.

•Conducted entirely in Spanish, even though student had been transitioned to English reading instruction.

•Eligibility recommendation based on a barely significant discrepancy in one area, with all other scores at/above grade level or commensurate with IQ.


Exclusionary Clause

•Participants in referral, assessment, and MDT processes did not document how they had ruled out special factors as required by Federal and state law under the exclusionary clause (IDEA Amendments, 1997).

-limited English proficiency

-environmental factors

-lack of opportunity to learn


Limitations of the Study

•Panel's conclusions were based solely on written records.

Important data, not recorded, may have been available to these committees, but not the expert panel.

•Panelists were not present when referral committees and MDTs deliberated evidence and made an eligibility determination.

Nonetheless, the results suggest ways in which the processes used in prereferral, referral, assessment, and eligibility determinations involving ELLs can be improved.

And, they suggest important research and training needs.



Main Conclusion

•Identifying learning disabilities among ELLs is a complex task even under “ideal” circumstances.

•You don’t want to even think about what happens in less than ideal situations.



Participants in prereferral, referral, assessment, and multidisciplinary team processes had difficulty distinguishing among:

  • •ELLs whose academic problems can be directly attributed to deficiencies in the teaching-learning environment
  • •ELLs whose learning problems become more serious over time because instruction is not modified to address educational needs
  • •ELLs with disabilities
  • •ELLs with LD and ELLs with other disabilities

•It is easy to say that assessments should be nondiscriminatory and that MDTs should rule out factors such as limited English proficiency, cultural differences, and lack of opportunity to learn as the cause of learning problems

•It is far more difficult to make an eligibility decision that results in an improved and appropriate instructional placement when one or more of these descriptors applies to an individual student.


The focus on factors at one level ignores factors at another level (Rueda, today).

•Data-gathering focuses on special education requirements for eligibility determinations.

However, the data gathered at the point of referral may not be the data needed to answer the question, “Is is a difference or is it a disability?”

•The answer may be found several years back in the student/family/school history.

•Without this “look back in time”, special education will continue to be a dumping ground for significant issues that are not disability-related.


Need for Centralized Data

There is a tremendous volume of information collected on ELLS over the course of their school careers.

However, it is recorded on many different forms, forms are kept in many different files, and records are kept in many different locations.

Consequently, neither bilingual education nor special education committees have access to all the data they need when they make decisions about eligibility, and program placements, or develop instructional interventions.


To make an appropriate eligibility determination, a multiplicity of factors must be considered, including

-parent input

-home language,

-oral language proficiency in L1 and L2

-literacy levels in both languages,

-prior instruction,

-type, duration, quality of special language programs

-teacher variables

-FIE results



Given the multiplicity of factors, and the volume of data, we need mechanisms that help teachers, assessment personnel, and prereferral, referral, and multidisciplinary teams focus on information and factors that seem to be most critical to making accurate decisions.

For example, the factors that distinguished the LD group from other students in this substudy.


Checklist for Determining the Presence of a Learning Disability among ELLs:

Early Intervention:

I. What is the student's present level of performance?

II. Based on the above information, how was instruction modified and what were the results?


Checklist: Campus-based Problem-solving

What interventions did the problem-solving team, in cooperation with the teacher and family, decide to implement and what procedures were identified for analyzing and documenting effectiveness?

What were the results of the intervention and do any difficulties remain?

If difficulties persist despite well-implemented interventions, determine whether additional problem-solving is needed or determine whether a special education referral is warranted.


Checklist: Referral Committees

V. The referral committee reviews early intervention efforts and considers factors, other than the presence of a disability, that may explain academic and behavioral difficulties (e.g. exclusionary clause).

VI. The committee explores other alternatives that should be considered to resolve the difficulties before requesting a full and individual evaluation (FIE).

The referral committee identifies unresolved questions and concerns. They share these with assessment personnel to direct the assessment process away from a focus on “legitimating the label”.


Checklist: Assessment Personnel

VIII. When an FIE is recommended, what procedures will

be used to address the issues identified by the referral

committee? What additional procedures may be needed to

establish eligibility?

Conduct the FIE incorporating best practices with

regard to the assessment of English Language Learners.

X. Correlate FIE outcomes with referral concerns.

XI. Identify student's strengths and weaknesses.


Checklist: Multidisciplinary Team

XII. Does the Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) include members who can facilitate the following:

involve parents meaningfully

interpret for parents


XIII. Does the Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) have any remaining questions after FIE results have been considered? If so, specify the additional action and/or information needed to resolve them.


XIV. The Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) determines that all potential factors contributing to the student's difficulties have been considered as FIE results are interpreted and documents data that addresses the exclusionary clause.

XV. The MDT determines eligibility based on the referral and assessment information. Data other than the presence of an IQ-achievement discrepancy support the decision.


Massive Training Implications

•Cross-disciplinary training for all



-Teams (Prereferral and MDT)



Need for Integrated versus Parallel Expertise

•Having bilingual personnel is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for accurate diagnoses.

•Dual certification (i.e., bilingual education and special education or bilingual education and assessment certification) is also insufficient.


Who will provide this integrated training?

•There is a critical need for

-expertise among University faculty and professional development specialists;

-collaboration among bilingual education, English as a second language, general education, and special education in providing cross-disciplinary training (and in making decisions).


While there is a critical need for more research in these areas, it would certainly help to implement what we already know.