Nashville’s public school district is home to one-fourth of Tennessee’s English language learners. Speaking more than 130 different languages and hailing from countries with a wide range of public education services, helping these kids gain the skills they need to become educated in Metro schools requires a complex range of services and expertise.
While Metro’s ELL program has been praised by the Tennessee Department of Education, and while the district’s current special education program is being run by DOE-appointed leaders, the district faces a serious challenge — properly identifying whether kids learning English have disabilities.
Metro Nashville Public Schools has been cited by the DOE multiple times for reporting numbers of ELL students with disabilities that are too small to be plausible. Last year, MNPS identified less than 80 ELL kids with special needs — that’s less than 1 percent of Metro’s population of ELL students.
By comparison, 12 percent of Metro students district-wide are reported as having special needs. These disabilities include speech and language problems, mental retardation, autism, learning disabilities and physical impairments.
Resolving this identification issue is “critical,” according to LaWanna Shelton, executive director of ELL at MNPS. Shelton is working closely with Linda DePriest, the district’s executive director of special education, to make the big changes necessary to solve the problem.
“There has been an unwritten rule in Tennessee that you wait one or two years for them to get English before you test them,” Shelton said. “There are kids who fall into that category who need services now. …You’re waiting two years for them to get English, but what if their disability is preventing them from learning English?”
The citations from the DOE for under-identification of ELL students with disabilities are not uncommon among districts in Tennessee, according to DOE spokesperson Amanda Maynord Anderson. Districts cited must prove to the state that the error was not made with negative intent, and that measures are being taken to improve.
Identifying disabilities in ELL students means assessing kids who are, by definition, not proficient in English. Once kids participate in district English as a Second Language programs and pass proficiency measures, they often still receive language help, but they are no longer considered ELL and should be able to communicate and learn in English.
Kids are typically able to complete the program after three to five years at the district. It’s noteworthy that ELL students who go on to reach proficiency typically perform far better than their peers on standardized tests, according to information from Shelton.
Sherry Wilds, a staff attorney for the Disability Law and Advocacy Center of Tennessee, said she hears more complaints about Tennessee school districts over-identifying kids as having special needs — and then sequestering those kids in special classes they don’t really need.
Districts sometimes lean in the opposite direction, under-identification, when working with ELL students because of specific requirements stating that language barriers should be excluded from disability assessments.
Some school workers take this to mean that if there’s a language barrier, a child can’t immediately be assessed, Wilds said.
“Sometimes, I think, school systems take that too literally. Common sense has to prevail here. A child can have limited English proficiency and a disability,” Wilds said. “I think what you have to do is look at that issue and try to discern between what is language, and what might be disability. If it looks like it might all be language-based, then of course you’re not going to want to stick a label on a child that they don’t need to have, or put them in a special class.”
MNPS’s Shelton says the whole spectrum of the problem should be considered as misidentification, rather than over- or under-. Districts and schools can sometimes swing back and forth between over- and under-identification, and neither is better.
“The misidentification of ELLs and special is prevalent throughout the nation. It just manifests itself in over-identification or under-identification,” Shelton said. “It all stems from the same problem. It’s going extreme in one direction or going extreme in the other.”
The mistakes are more likely to be made when identifying kids with “soft,” or more subjectively identified, disabilities, like mental retardation, learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. Some of these “soft” disabilities are among the most commonly diagnosed special needs among Metro students, according to MNPS data.
A rule of thumb is that if a disability doesn’t exist in a native language, it doesn’t exist. But it’s hard to find psychologists – as well as testing equipment and materials – in all the languages spoken by Metro students.
A little more than half of Metro ELL students speak Spanish. Accommodating the many other languages spoken is often more difficult.
Arabic, Kurdish, Somali and Vietnamese are all languages spoken by hundreds of Metro students. Thousands of Metro students, including those who are proficient in English and those who are not, fall into the category of speaking “other language,” which comprises about 120 different languages.
A major contributor to the problem has less to do with testing means and more to do with information. According to Shelton, there has been an “unwritten rule” in Tennessee that educators wait a year or two after students enter ELL programs before diagnosing any disabilities.
District officials must improve the situation by communicating very clearly with all staff members, Shelton said. Staff that works with ELL students must know specific identifiers that indicate ELL students  may have disabilities.
Getting to the heart of the problem is essential both for the education of the kids involved and for equitable measurement of those kids’ progress on standardized tests. After all, is it fair, for example, to hold an ELL student to high school benchmarks for reading and language when disabilities assessments could indicate that child will likely never read beyond the fourth grade?