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Illustration by Paige Vickers

Sara Kangas Provides Insight into High Percentages of English Learners with Disabilities in Schools

Kangas examines through multiple studies how state and federal policies and structural issues in schools can be barriers to learning.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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Illustrations by Paige Vickers

In the middle schools and high schools that she visited for her research and studies, applied linguist Sara Kangas noticed a disturbing trend: high percentages of English learners (ELs) with learning disabilities.  

What is going on here? Kangas, an assistant professor of special education, wondered. Why do so many of the English learners in that school or any secondary school have learning disabilities? 

“That was something that was bothering me,” she says, “and it was bothering me because I feel like [it was] very disproportionately high.” 

Kangas’ concerns are at the heart of a recent study, “Reclassification of Emergent Bilinguals with Disabilities: The Intersectionality of Improbabilities,” published in the journal Language Policy. In the study, Kangas and co-author Jamie L. Schissel of the University of North Carolina analyzed federal and state policies that govern procedures for reclassifying ELs as fluent in English, along with the standardized assessments that the reclassification policies rely on and that impact students’ educational paths. 

“My work focuses on policies and structural issues in schools, and how those are barriers [to learning],” Kangas says. “That’s my lens in a lot of the work I do.” 

In another recent study, “Breaking One Law to Uphold Another: How Schools Provide Services to English Learners with Disabilities,” Kangas explored why schools persist in providing students with only one set of services—special education or English language supports—when they are legally entitled to receive both services. The study is published in TESOL Quarterly.

Providing language supports is a critical issue in education, as students work to attain English proficiency and meet academic achievement standards. An estimated 4.9 million U.S. public school students, or 9.6 percent of the school population, were identified as ELs in fall 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 700,000 students, or about 14 percent of the total EL population in public schools, were identified as ELs with disabilities.

Kangas’ rich body of research—including a new ethnographic study that aims to better understand how schools can improve learning environments to better support EL students’ linguistic and academic needs—provides deep insight into the high percentages of ELs with disabilities that she’s found in the schools she visited. 

“We can make a strong case that there are several reasons,” Kangas says. “One is political. The policies that we make don’t know how to account for language and disability intersections and how that influences learning. I would also say, it’s structural in the way we organize schools and have academic tracks, where certain services occur and where we place children in those tracks and services. I would also argue ... that it’s ideological. What do we assume about these children? Do we assume they’re capable? 

“Those together—those political, structural and ideological factors—are part of the reason why so many English learners with disabilities get stuck in ESL [English as a Second Language programming] and cannot meet proficiency standards,” she says. 

[English language proficiency] tests can’t account for disabilities. And yet, tests are used to determine if [ELs with disabilities] are proficient in English.

Sara Kangas

Reclassifying English Learners

In the “Reclassification of Emergent Bilinguals with Disabilities” study, Kangas and Schissel focused their research on the policies and practices in two states that have a high percentage of ELs but differing criteria for assessing proficiency in English—California and New Mexico. California is more stringent in its approach, with multiple components to its reclassification criteria, including teacher input. 

Their findings were illuminating: The policies and practices at play in both states marginalized ELs with disabilities, the authors say. Because the students had intersecting needs, namely in academic development and acquisition of a second language, it was improbable that they would be reclassified as English-proficient. 

“[English language proficiency] tests can’t account for disabilities,” Kangas says. “And yet, tests are used to determine if [ELs with disabilities] are proficient in English.”

Kangas and Schissel addressed an overriding question in their research: How does the intersection of education and assessment policies inform the reclassification processes for ELs with disabilities? They also explored how that intersection can create multiple roadblocks for students along the path to reclassification. 

Laden within the processes, they say, are annual assessments that stem from federal education policies. The researchers noted that ELs with disabilities have to meet two assessment requirements: one that measures academic achievement based on their identification as students with disabilities, another that measures English proficiency based on their classification as English-language learners. What constitutes English proficiency, however, varies state by state.

New Mexico used a single composite score in its measure of reclassifying students as English proficient. Such a high-stakes assessment puts ELs with disabilities at a disadvantage, Kangas and Schissel argue, because the schools provide accommodations—extended time to test, for example—that are intended to help students with disabilities, not language learners with disabilities.

California, in contrast, had multiple components to its criteria for reclassification, including teacher input, parental approval and a comparison of students’ performances in basic skills to those of English-proficient students of the same age. Test accommodations included administering the test at a time of day more beneficial for ELs.

Still, in testing in the 2015-2016 academic year, ELs with disabilities scored at the lowest ends of the proficiency scales, raising questions about the validity of the assessments and whether the accommodations “level the playing field,” Kangas says. 

Though teacher evaluations or grades in certain courses figure into the process too, Kangas and Schissel say, such criteria would be open to interpretation, which could reinforce or reveal biases. “For example,” they wrote, “the importance placed on a single grade by a single teacher brings into question whether or not the teacher understands the implications of such a grade, and previous teacher training in working with emergent bilinguals with disabilities.”

The educational consequences can be profound, the researchers argue. Over time, they say, the students might become disproportionately represented in the schools’ special education programs, where they might languish academically rather than flourish.

Kangas and Schissel recognize, however, that ELs would be subject to inconsistent criteria for English proficiency if assessments were completely removed from the reclassification process. 

“Thus, we advocate for reclassification policies that are flexible and responsive to emergent bilinguals with disabilities,” they write. “Specifically, we advocate an approach to reclassification that relies on interdisciplinary teams of education professionals, with parents/guardians and learners, working together to support emergent bilinguals and their educational needs.”

The researchers also call on scholars to investigate equity issues in schools so that ELs with disabilities have the same educational opportunities as their peers.

Illustration of red bridge over water with figures walking on bridge and swimming underneath

A Civil Rights Issue

In a qualitative comparative case study, “Breaking One Law to Uphold Another,” Kangas investigated how and why schools misinterpreted federal laws and policies, and as a result, were providing ELs with disabilities with only one set of services—either special education or English language supports—rather than the dual services to which they are legally entitled.

Language education and special education laws and policies are rooted in the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, both of which sparked additional protections in the education of historically vulnerable groups, Kangas notes. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education that is tailored to their learning needs. One element includes IEPs, or Individual Education Programs, which specify the services that students must receive and their educational goals. As a measure of accountability, schools are legally obligated to provide the services and supports outlined in the IEPs.

Bilingual education is rooted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their race, color and national origin. In a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Lau v. Nichols, the justices found that a school system’s failure to provide ELs with language services had denied them a meaningful education and violated the Civil Rights Act. A subsequent court case established a measure of adequate services for ELs.

As part of her study, Kangas spent six months observing first- and third-graders, interviewing teachers and administrators and collecting documents at two sites in the northeastern United States—a suburban elementary school with a large population of students with disabilities, and a bilingual public charter school serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 

Kangas addressed several questions: How and why are schools not complying with federal policies and laws in service provision for ELs with disabilities? How does federal policy for ELs with disabilities change as it filters down through layers of the education system? In what ways do educators’ beliefs influence policy interpretations and implementations? How do policy interpretations and implementations reinforce intersectionality?

Kangas found that educators—even those at a school committed to bilingual language—considered special education laws more potent than English learner laws and policies. That stemmed from the educators’ misunderstanding of the very laws and policies enacted to protect ELs with disabilities.

“Services targeting disabilities were at the top of the hierarchy, whereas EL services were at the bottom—a phenomenon I refer to as a hierarchy of services,” writes Kangas. “When a student required both special education and EL services, special education was perceived by educators, including administrators, as legally powerful and therefore obligatory, where EL services were interpreted as mere policy recommendations.” 

The study is the first to uncover why schools haven’t adhered to federal education laws that require ELs with disabilities to receive both language assistance and disability-related services.

Special education law leaves little room for interpretation, Kangas says. Teachers and administrators oft pointed to students’ IEPs as the principal reason that special education services took precedence over language assistance. “The IEP is a contract that the parents sign, and if we don’t follow it, there could be legal troubles,” one teacher told her. “And of course, a school doesn’t want to have the legal troubles.” 

In contrast, the educators candidly expressed their beliefs that English learner services were derived from guidelines that were subject to interpretation, not from enforceable laws. Both schools also were insufficiently staffed for EL services.  “Having the status of guidelines,” Kangas says, “EL services were viewed as pliable and ultimately optional.” 

With educators inadvertently breaking one law to uphold another, Kangas assigns some responsibility to the legal and political systems of accountability in education matters. If schools fail to provide special education services outlined in students’ IEPs, for example, it could result in legal action in the form of due-process hearings, mediation and formal complaints. Kangas notes that the National Center on Dispute Resolution in Special Education recorded nearly 5,000 written complaints, about 8,500 mediation requests and 14,300 due-process complaints in 2014, underscoring that the education context for students with disabilities is highly litigious. 

In comparison, the legal recourse for ensuring language support for ELs “is stifled by a nebulous accountability system” that rests heavily on a parent or other stakeholder filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Kangas says. However, she says, earlier research has shown that parents of English learners often don’t have the linguistic skills in English and knowledge of the school system to advocate for their children.

“As a result of an ambiguous EL policy and an arduous complaint system, ELs with disabilities experience a marginalization that is both legally and structurally driven,” Kangas says.

She advocates, in part, for teacher education programs that bolster the message that EL education is a civil rights issue. She also argues for policymakers and educational agencies to establish stronger protections for English learner policies, including by mandating that students’ IEPs reflect their English language needs. 

Complying with federal laws should not be the only reason for educators to provide ELs with disabilities with dual services, Kangas says. “Schools simply fulfilling the technicalities of the law to avoid punitive actions miss the ethical responsibilities of educators to the children they teach,” she says. “ELs with disabilities need both educational services to advance in their academic and language learning. 

“Without EL services, in particular, these students will likely be unable to attain proficiency in the language, which will likely inhibit their reclassification and academic trajectories. However, by providing dual services, schools can begin to educate ELs with disabilities as whole people with multiple, intersecting needs.”

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Illustrations by Paige Vickers

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