The Over- and Under-Identification of ELLs in Special Education

Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders

Administrators play an important role in shaping the policies and procedures for identifying the language and academic needs of English language learners (ELLs), particularly those that might have disabilities. In this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders, Debbie Zacarian explains the trends of over- and under-identification of ELLs with disabilities and provides two related case studies.

Student Case Studies

Case Scenario 1: Carlos

Carlos enrolled in Mrs. Monahan’s third-grade classroom during the spring term. Prior to enrolling, he had attended school in a neighbor­ing city for less than a year and been referred for a special education evalu­ation because of his poor academic progress. Prior to that time, Carlos had had limited prior schooling in his home country as his parents could not afford to pay for the education that was available to him. When he enrolled in Mrs. Monahan’s class, Carlos was tested to formally determine the type of learning disability that he had. The testing was conducted in English, as was the family and social history interview with his parents. The interview was conducted by the school’s guidance counselor, who noted that Carlos’s parents were unable to answer many of the questions “in full.”

After the testing process was completed, a meeting was held with his parents to review the results of the special education evaluation. The time allotted for the meeting was the same as it was for all special education evaluation meetings. In attendance were the school psychologist, special educator, guidance counselor, Carlos’s teacher, and a translator employed by the school to translate the meeting. The school psychologist and special educator confirmed what they had suspected, that Carlos had a language learning disability. During their explanation of the test findings, they looked directly at the translator and made very little eye contact with Carlos’s parents.

One of the services that they recommended was for Carlos to receive instruction from a special educator in lieu of ESL classes because they thought it would be a more effective way for him to learn the compensatory skills that he needed to cope with his disability. Carlos’s parents were respectful of the school’s findings and recommendations. They felt out of place at the meeting, as they did not really understand most of the technical language that was being used. They politely nodded in agreement with all that was stated and recommended.


Case Scenario 2: Abad

When Abad enrolled in the third grade in America, he did so after having been enrolled in school in his native country. In his native coun­try, while he spoke Arabic at home and was instructed in Arabic, he had had a good deal of difficulty in school and often did not comprehend what was being taught. His teachers and parents had been concerned about his academic progress and that he might have a language delay. While Abad was a very well-behaved child, he struggled in school and often came home crying in frustration.

When he moved to the United States, his parents continued to be concerned about his academic prog­ress. When they expressed their concerns to his teacher, she responded that it was important to give Abad time to learn English. Thinking that his teacher knew the right thing to do, his parents did not continue to express their concerns or pursue a referral. Rather, they waited and waited and waited. By the end of his first year in America, Abad was fail­ing his classes miserably. However, his teacher continued to believe that his failure was due to his lack of English.


In the United States, there is growing concern about over-identifying and under-identifying English learners (ELs) with disabilities (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez, & Damico, 2007). In some schools, when ELs don’t seem to be making the same academic progress as their peers or learning English rapidly, they are referred for a special education evaluation. The dilemma of overidentifying students, such as in the case of Carlos, leads to a high and disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse learners being referred for a special education evaluation and, ultimately, diagnosed with a learning disabil­ity. Overrepresentation is a chronic issue that requires our attention.

On many levels, this is likely occurring due to educa­tors’ lack of training, familiarity, and preparedness to teach diverse popu­lations. That is, students who are “different” from their teachers are all too often regarded as having disabilities. The educational needs of ELs require that we understand the diversity among our student populations and plan and deliver instruction that is tailored for the individual needs of this group (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Haager, Klingner, & Vaughn, 2007; Haynes & Zacarian, 2010). Until this is done, it is likely that we will con­tinue to overidentify a large number of students as having disabilities when they do not.

Simultaneously, some schools fear that they might be referring ELs too quickly and that time is needed for a student to learn English before a special education referral is made and completed. This “wait till the student fails” and “stall for time” approach, as seen in the case of Abad, can prevent the interventions that are needed from occurring (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003). The extent to which ELs are underidenti­fied cannot be minimized. Some schools stall the process for such a long period of time that when the referral and identification process finally occurs, it is too late to provide the types of interventions that would have helped the student the most effectively, if at all (Esparza Brown & Doolittle, 2008).

Thus, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other and rarely stops in a balanced, “just right” position. The process needed to create a more effective means for identifying ELs with disabilities and, more important, for providing an instructional program that is effective for all ELs requires leaders to address the disproportionate representation of ELs in special education by using a multistep scale of response commonly referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI). Before moving into a discus­sion about RTI, however, it is important to understand the main law per­taining to students with disabilities and the means by which schools gather data about the following:

  • effectiveness of school programming for the general population of ELs (i.e., the effectiveness of the English language education pro­gram as a whole)
  • ELs who struggle to learn and are subsequently referred for a special education evaluation
  • ELs who are diagnosed with disabilities


Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Framework for School Leaders. (2011). Zacarian, Debbie. Chapter 7: Identifying and Working With English Learners With Learning Differences and Learning Disabilities. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.  pp. 129-146.


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