Colorin Colorado: Helping children read... and succeed!
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FAQs

Assessment + Evaluation

Frequent questions

  • Question 1: What academic behaviors tell you it is time to make a special education referral for an ELL student?
  • Question 2: We are receiving a large influx of Hispanic families into our community. What can be done to address a fair grading practice as most of our non-English speaking students struggle?
  • Question 3: What are BICS and CALP?
  • Question 4: I heard that learning disabilities affect 15% of the population. Does this number increase when students are immersed in a second language? I work in an immersion school and our numbers are higher than that.

Expert answers

Question:

What academic behaviors tell you it is time to make a special education referral for an ELL student?

Answer:

Special education referral for English language learners is a complex issue that is confounded by both language and cultural issues. The characteristics of students in the process of learning English as a second language can be confused with the characteristics of a communication disorder or learning disability. For this reason, ELLs are sometimes misidentified as needing special services.

Sometimes, too, students who are in need of services are overlooked because their lack of academic achievement is assumed to be associated with limited English proficiency. Rules governing social interactions, including norms for verbal and nonverbal communication, also vary between cultures and can lead to misinterpretation of an English language learner's behavior in the classroom.

Overall, ELLs are underrepresented in special education. However, they also tend to be overrepresented in some areas, including Speech-Language Impairment, Mental Retardation, and Emotional Disturbance.

Research on special education and English language learners has been limited. Currently, ELLs are referred for special education evaluation based on the same academic behaviors as native English speakers. However, care must be taken to ensure that these behaviors are, indeed, the result of a learning difficulty and are not associated with lack of English proficiency. Holtzman and Wilkinson (1991) emphasize the need for pre-referral intervention that takes place over a sufficient period of time and includes instruction in the native language. Only after a variety of educational and behavioral interventions has proven unsuccessful should an English language learner be referred for a complete evaluation. If a referral is made, the student will benefit from assessment in both of his/her languages.

Question:

We are receiving a large influx of Hispanic families into our community. What can be done to address a fair grading practice as most of our non-English speaking students struggle?

Answer:

Educators must be creative and flexible in their approach to assessing and grading children with limited English proficiency. Whenever possible, bilingual children should be given an opportunity to demonstrate what they know in both of their languages, as even seemingly balanced bilingual students may have gaps in one or both of their languages. In addition, it is common for there to be shifts in language dominance, and as a child becomes more proficient in English, he or she may actually lose ground in the native language, making it even more important to assess in both languages.

In order to avoid bias in assessment and grading, it is advisable to concentrate on the state standards (what students are required to know and be able to do). Consult with state and district specialists to see how the standards are being adapted for English language learners and which types of assessments are aligned to the standards and developed specifically for ELLs. ELLs must not receive "watered-down," or less rigorous instruction; they need to receive the same content instruction as the mainstream student population.

Of course it is also important to monitor students' individual growth. McLaughlin and colleagues (1995) recommended what they termed instructionally embedded assessment, in which teachers make a plan for assessment, gather information from a variety of sources, and then use the information gathered to inform their instruction. Assessments are informal, including such tools as portfolios, observations, and interviews, and are designed to document individual growth.

For more on this topic, please see our Assessment and Placement section.

Question:

What are BICS and CALP?

Answer:

The acronyms BICS and CALP refer to the length of time required by immigrant children to develop conversational skills in the target language and grade appropriate academic proficiency in that language. Understanding the difference between social language and academic language acquisition is an important concept for teachers working with non-native students.

BICS:

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) refer to linguistic skills needed in everyday, social face-to-face interactions. For instance, the language used in the playground, on the phone, or to interact socially with other people is part of BICS. The language used in these social interactions is context embedded. That is, it is meaningful, cognitively undemanding, and non-specialized. It takes the learner from six months to two years to develop BICS.

CALP:

CALP, on the other hand, focuses on proficiency in academic language or language used in the classroom in the various content areas. CALP stands for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Academic language is characterized by being abstract, context reduced, and specialized. In addition to acquiring the language, learners need to develop skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring when developing academic competence. It takes learners at least five years to develop CALP. Research from Collier and Thomas (1995) has shown that it may take children with no prior instruction or no support in native language development at least seven years to develop CALP.

The distinction between BICS and CALP was made by Jim Cummings. You can find his own explanation of the distinction on his website.

Question:

I heard that learning disabilities affect 15% of the population. Does this number increase when students are immersed in a second language? I work in an immersion school and our numbers are higher than that.

Answer:

Research has shown that being exposed to a second language, even in an immersion setting, does not cause learning disabilities; however, certain factors come into play with English language learners (ELLs) that may cause them to be over-identified for special services. First of all, limited English language proficiency often makes it difficult to accurately evaluate ELLs. Only by testing students in their primary language, as well as in English, can we really have an accurate picture of what they know. Unfortunately, limited resources and a lack of appropriate testing instruments often make it impossible to do this. Consequently, students may be inappropriately assigned to special services, based on English evaluation alone.

In addition, because expectations are different from one country to another, there may be cases in which students who are considered to be functioning well in their native country may not meet expectations in U.S. schools and may be referred for special services. The fact that many of these students have had interrupted schooling prior to coming to the U.S. contributes to the problem.

Finally, some of the characteristics of limited English proficiency can be confused with learning difficulties. Native speakers of Spanish, for example, may find it difficult to master the English short vowel sounds, either in speech or in reading and writing, simply because most of these are sounds that do not occur in Spanish. This difficulty may be misinterpreted as evidence of a reading disability or a speech/language disability. The issue of learning difficulties among English language learners is complex and often puzzling. Based on existing research, however, it is safe to say that being immersed in a second language does not cause a higher incidence of learning disabilities.