Special Education Referral, Evaluation, and Placement Practices for Preschool English Language Learners

Article excerpt

Abstract. The number of English language learners (ELLs) in early childhood regular and special education services has increased dramatically in the past decade. A survey was conducted with 141 early childhood administrators and teachers to examine their beliefs and practices concerning the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process for preschool ELLs and their families. Survey questions were designed to gather information about: 1) how cultural and language differences were addressed, 2) what strategies were used to ensure parent participation of ELL children, and 3) what training was available and being used by early childhood professionals. Data were coded and percentages of similar responses calculated to understand participants' beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Results indicate that inconsistencies in methods are used to determine home language and English proficiency, a lack of clarity regarding the purpose of instruments used for screening and evaluating ELL children, a need for reliable and valid screening and assessment tools in a variety of languages, a need for interpreters who are trained in early childhood terms and the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process, and a need for more teacher training on meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse families.


Children of immigrant families are the fastest growing population in the United States (United States Census Bureau, 2003). In 2003, an estimated 33.5 million people, or nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population, was foreign-born (Larsen, 2004). As a result of these population changes, the number of children in U.S. schools who are English language learners (ELLs) has increased by more than 15 million students, making up almost 10 percent of the total school population in prekindergarten through 12th grade (Mathews & Ewen, 2006; Meyer, Madden, & McGrath, 2004). Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean, and Arabic are among the top five languages spoken in the homes of families with ELLs (Hopstock & Stephenson, 2003).

Early childhood regular and special education services have been particularly impacted by these population changes. Nineteen states experienced a 100 percent or more increase in the number of immigrant children under age 6 during the last decade, and approximately 44 percent of ELL students attending public schools are in prekindergarten through 3rd grade (Mathews & Ewen, 2006). Similarly, in 2005, twenty-five percent of the children attending Head Start spoke a language (mostly Spanish) other than English in their homes (Hamm, 2006). In response to the large number of young ELL students participating in preschool education and the need to appropriately educate the increasing number of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, 12 of the 38 states and the District of Columbia that have state preschool services use ELL as an "at-risk" category or as a factor to prioritize enrollment of eligible children (Mathews & Ewen, 2006).

North Carolina's population reflects this national picture. It is well-documented that North Carolina has the fastest growing Latino population in the United States, nearly a 400 percent increase since 1990, and six to seven times faster than the national growth rate (North Carolina State Data Center, 2001). In fact, 27.5 percent of the state's population growth from 1990 to 2004 was made up of Latino families. Fifty-seven percent of the total enrollment growth in North Carolina public schools between the 2000-01 and 2004-05 school years can be attributed to the Latino population (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2006).

Within North Carolina and nationwide, early childhood teachers and administrators in both regular and special education are being challenged in new ways by the cultural and linguistic differences of ELLs. These circumstances are exacerbated by the speed at which these changes have taken place, thus creating enormous challenges to service providers responsible for assessing, determining eligibility, and providing educational services to young ELLs (Bevan-Brown, 2001; Burnette, 2000; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005). …