The racial and ethnic composition of the public schools is rapidly changing. The percentage of racial/ethnic minority students enrolled in kindergarten through high school increased from 22% in 1972 to 44% in 2007 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009a). Hispanics were the fastest growing minority group during that period, currently representing 21% of public school enrollment. The number of English language learners (ELLs) in the schools also increased dramatically in recent years. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that the number of students identified as English language learners and receiving English as a second language (ESL) services increased from 2 to 3 million between 1994 and 2000. By 2004, that number increased to 3.8 million students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009b). In 2007, slightly more than 20% of students between the ages of 5 and 17 spoke a language other than English at home and spoke English with some difficulty (Crawford, 2009). Given the shifting demographics of the public schools today, the provision of state-of-the-art psychological services to children and youth from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds is an increasingly important concern.
Cognitive Assessment of Diverse Children and Youth
Research on test bias strongly suggests that, for English-speaking children born and raised in the United States, the major standardized tests of cognitive ability are not substantially biased, regardless of racial/ethnic group or socioeconomic class (e.g., Brown, Reynolds, & Whitaker, 1999; Jensen, 1980; Neisser et al., 1996). This conclusion, however, does not generalize beyond native-born, English-speaking children and youth (e.g., Figueroa, 1990). The test's language does matter, especially for those whose first language differs from the language of the assessment (English) or who are bilingual and limited English proficient.
What, then, should school psychologists do when assessing the cognitive ability of children who are not proficient in English, fully acculturated in mainstream American society, or both? The longstanding best practice recommendation has been to use a nonverbal test (e.g., Figueroa, 1990). In a recent comparative review, Braden and Athanasiou (2005) concluded that the most widely used contemporary nonverbal measures of cognitive ability tend to have strong psychometric properties and adequate norms to support their use with diverse populations. In addition, a number of these tests, such as the Universal Nonverbal Intelligence Test (Bracken & McCallum, 1998), the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (Naglieri, 2003), and the Leiter International Performance Scale--Revised (Roid & Miller, 1997), are based on well-articulated models of intelligence. Results of recent research has substantiated the utility of nonverbal assessment for children and youth from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds (e.g., Lohman, Korb, & Lakin, 2008; Lohman & Lakin, 2008; Naglieri, Booth, & Winsler, 2004). Lohman and Lakin (2008), for example, demonstrated that nonverbal tests of cognitive ability are a valuable component in a comprehensive system for identifying intellectual giftedness among ELLs.
Flanagan, Ortiz, and Alfonso (2007), however, recently asserted that "there is an emerging body of research that suggests that nonverbal tasks may actually carry as much if not more cultural content than that found in verbal tests" (p. 165). Indeed, all psychometric tests have varying degrees of cultural loading and all require some form of communication between the examiner and examinee. When the test performance of children and youth from diverse backgrounds primarily reflects level of acculturation and English-language proficiency rather than the cognitive ability constructs the test was intended to measure, the interpretation of scores is invalid. Development of a method to differentiate between children and youth who are experiencing learning difficulties because of differences in language or cultural background and those who are experiencing learning difficulties because of some type of disability would be a significant contribution to research and practice (Artiles & Klingner, 2006). …