children raising hands in classroom

Research Promotes Equitable Reclassification for Multilingual Learners with Disabilities

Sara Kangas, associate professor of special education, presents policy brief to special education state agency leaders from across the U.S.

The number of K-12 students in U.S. schools who need both English as a Second Language (ESL) and special education support is growing at breakneck speed, says Sara Kangas, program director and an associate professor of special education in Lehigh’s College of Education, in a new policy brief outlining trends and research findings on dual-identified students.

From 2006-2020, the number of students requiring dual programs grew by 50% nationwide with some regions experiencing even faster growth. However, many schools focus solely on students’ special education needs, leaving English learners (ELs) with disabilities without adequate support. Also, classification and support for ELs rarely includes provisions for students’ disabilities, the report says.

Sara Kangas

Sara Kangas

Kangas, an applied linguist, recently presented the policy brief outlining her findings to more than 120 special education state agency leaders from across the United States.

It is her hope, Kangas says, that “EL and special education state leaders use the brief to anchor their collaborative discussions, as they together refine state policies and support local educational agencies.”

Kangas researches the educational experiences of ELs with disabilities and how schools can create learning environments that support both their linguistic and academic needs. She recently concluded a study titled "When English Learners with Disabilities Become Long-Term English Learners." Supported by the Spencer Foundation, the study focuses on the barriers that ELs with disabilities experience as they work towards English proficiency.

In the U.S. K-12 school system, EL is meant to be a temporary designation while students learn the English language. However, research has found that some ELs, especially those with disabilities, never reach English-proficient status and often become long-term ELs.

Kangas’ study examined data on current policies in each state and investigated the structural inequalities that prevent English language mastery by ELs with disabilities. The resultant policy brief presents the most recent trends and research findings on dually-identified students and promotes collaboration between EL and special education state agency leaders.

The report also lays out recommendations that recognize dual-identified students’ complex needs. For example, employing multiple forms of English language proficiency evidence is recommended, recognizing that not all ELs with disabilities may be able to meet the standard English language proficiency assessments.

The study also recommends a re-examination of alternate English language proficiency assessments and exemption policies to accommodate ELs with significant cognitive disabilities. Finally, pointing to multiple studies that have shown dual-identified students are often perceived in deficit terms, the study recommends the implementation of practices that focus on the strengths of these students.

Story by Beth Blew

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