Magazine article National Association of School Psychologists. Communique

Culturally Competent Assessment of English Language Learners for Special Education Services

Magazine article National Association of School Psychologists. Communique

Culturally Competent Assessment of English Language Learners for Special Education Services

Article excerpt

Students who are learning English as a second or third language often lag behind native English speakers in academic skills and may display differences in behavior or social skills compared to their native English speaking peers. These English language learners (ELLs) are therefore at risk for referral for special services including special education.

Research and experience encourage educators to use appropriate, nonbiased approaches to screen ELL students to determine their need for support within the general education program and to implement culturally competent instructional strategies prior to considering referral to special education (e.g., see Lau & Blatchley, 2009). But what about those ELL students who make little or no progress despite additional supports? When special education services are considered for ELL students, school personnel are urged to take a broad, ecological perspective, collecting data through a multidimensional, multitask approach and interpreting results within the context of the students' unique cultural, linguistic, and experiential backgrounds.


Using nationally standardized, norm- refe re need test (NRT) scores to determine eligibility for special education requires considerable caution with ELL students. As ELL students present a continuum of English proficiency and acculturation, the appropriateness of NRTs for a given student depends on the similarity of that student's experience to that of the test's standardization population.

Tasks from standardized tests may be administered to find out what skills the learner does and does not have. However, if the learner's background experience is significantly different from that of the group on which the test was normed, it is inappropriate to use the normative scores to draw conclusions regarding student needs and special education eligibility. The use of native language interpreters does not negate this principle, and in fact introduces other complicating factors. For instance, current standardized tests do not involve the use of interpreters as part of their standardization procedure. Moreover, some test items just cannot be translated from English to another language without seriously distorting their original meaning or without suggesting the correct or expected response. These extraneous factors could seriously compromise the validity and utility of the assessment.


Learning how to work with interpreters is a critical skill for school psychologists, special educators, and others involved in assessment and planning for ELL students. Given the limitations of norm-referenced measures for ELLs, informal data gathered from parents and other family members through an interpreter is essential. During formal assessment, interpreters in partnership with school personnel can ensure that task directions are understood by the student, and that responses are understood by the examiner. Further, the presence and participation of the interpreter communicates respect of the student's culture and language, and acknowledges the impact of his/her limited English proficiency.

Using and training professional interpreters. Frequently, interpreters are not well trained in the specifics and rationale of assessment procedures. Therefore, school psychologists or other specialists need to provide training and supervise all activities when working with interpreters. School districts should rely on trained interpreters and not enlist a cultural peer or a relative as the interpreter. Many language minority families already experience a reversal of roles with their children, which is reinforced if they are used as interpreters. Additionally, using lay interpreters (particularly other family members, relatives, or friends) risks breaching confidentiality. Because special educators tend to use a unique vocabulary, it is recommended that districts or state departments of education provide training and potentially certification in this specialized area of interpreting. …

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