Learning Disabilities or Difference: A Critical Look at Issues Associated with the Misidentification and Placement of Hispanic Students in Special Education Programs

Article excerpt

Abstract

A new generation of Hispanic students are at risk due to inadequacies in our educational system. The inadequacies which include lack of prepared teachers and misuse of testing and assessment procedures impact special education programs, in particular, when one examines practices relative to Latino students in the area of learning disabilities. The article addresses problems in the definition of learning disabilities, learner variability, and the effects of race, poverty, culture, and language on educational outcomes. The authors call for a new assessment paradigm that would require the restructuring of professional development programs and institutional practices in public schools that are not in line with current research on topics related to this population including second language acquisition and cognitive development.

The Hispanic experience is inextricably woven into the fabric of the history and traditions of the United States for more than 500 years, just as it will continue to be in the nation's future. Yet, in this new century, the American educational enterprise continues to deny equitable educational opportunities to Hispanic Americans. The members of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans (1996) issued a warning stating "A generation of Hispanic American students in U.S. public education are at risk due to serious inadequacies in the educational system" (p. 1). In recognizing the inadequacies of the system continuing disparity were detailed in school funding, ineffective bilingual and English as a Second Language programs, lack of prepared teachers and a misuse of testing and assessment procedures. This troubling trend continues and inequities persist as corroborated by Losen & Orfield, 2002. U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah (2002) in her assessment of recent findings refers to the chilling implications for the educational system stating, "The overidentification of minority students in special education and the subsequent isolation, stigmatization, and inferior treatment they receive confirms the notion that education in America falls short of offering a level playing field for all" (p. ). The needs of English language learners are addressed in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law [PL.] 107-110) under Title III, the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. Local school districts are given flexibility and control in determining how to best meet the needs of English Language learners and immigrant student populations in their schools. In addition, the legislation places increased emphases on utilizing scientifically based research strategies as well as standardized tests to measure annual English language proficiency. Interpretation, effective practices, and time will tell if these approaches will work.

These statements, reports, and findings will increasingly challenge all educational professionals to address these inadequacies in the system and reverse and rethink practices to insure more equitable educational opportunities for Hispanic students in the American educational enterprise (McLaughlin, Puffin, &Artiles,2001).

Changing Demographics and Changing Realities

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Immigration during the early part of the twentieth century was from Europe primarily, but now nearly 85% of documented immigrants arrive from Asia and Latin America (Cortes, 1999). Recent immigrants tend to be younger than the population at large and have younger children and larger families (U.S. Department of Commerce & Bureau of the Census, 2000). The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 59% of the 35.3 million Latinos in the U.S. are of Mexican origin (Valencia, 2002). Hispanic people became the majority minority for the first time in 2000, followed by African Americans (U.S. Department of Commerce & Bureau of the Census, 2000). More than 50% of English language learners are in grades K-4, with 77% coming from poor backgrounds (Baca, 2000). …