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Limited English Proficient Students and Special Education

Martha L. Minnow

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Some school districts have at times confused the educational needs of limited English proficient (LEP) students with the special education services required by students with disabilities. This confusion and the consequent inappropriate referral of LEP students to special education raises the question of whether LEP students identified as requiring special education are receiving a free and appropriate public education as required by federal law[1] . Inappropriate referral to special education can be stigmatizing and costly, inhibiting LEP students from achieving their full academic potential and diverting special education resources from students with actual disabilities and needs.[2]

Specialists assume that approximately the same proportion of students with disabilities will be found in any population.[3] Based upon this assumption, statistically, about 12% of the language minority population in the United States should require special education.[4] But generally, language minorities are over-represented in programs for the learning disabled.[5] For instance, in California, where students with limited English proficiency make up 22.2% of the student population[6] , LEP students (also known as English language learners or ELL students) are significantly over-represented in special education, particularly in specific learning disabilities and speech impairment classes.[7]

There are a number of possible causes for the disproportionate representation of LEP students in special needs categories. One possible cause is that some school systems are continuing to assign students to special education programs on the basis of criteria that essentially measure and evaluate the English skills of students.[8] Other causes may include inadequacy of reading instruction, ineffective assessment and placement procedures, or even racial or ethnic bias. Reform could be hindered by the absence of state specific data on LEP students with disabilities.[9] Even states with large populations of LEP students do not necessarily have data on the identification, assessments, and placements of LEP students with disabilities.[10]

In some school districts, language minority students are over-represented in special education, while in others language minority students are underrepresented.[11] In the past, misdiagnosis of LEP students as requiring special education has led to a number of lawsuits and court orders.[12] As a result, fear of litigation by school districts can sometimes lead to the under-identification of LEP students in special education. In such circumstances, LEP students with special education needs, may not be receiving the services they require. It is possible that this reasoning may explain why Hispanic students are under-identified for certain disability categories in California, such as emotional disturbance.[13]

To achieve equality of access to special needs services and to ensure that all students are being educated adequately and effectively, both under-identification and over-identification of LEP students regarding special education status must be examined, thoroughly monitored, and eventually remedied. One study concludes that "[it is] imperative to monitor the quality of educational programs offered to linguistic minority students in general, bilingual, and special education as well as the long-term consequences of placement decisions for these students."[14]

Such research and monitoring can have crucial implications for other issues related to special education such as race, reading instruction, and bilingual education. For instance, in 1997 California voters passed Proposition 227, which essentially eliminated bilingual education in the state. A determination how the elimination of bilingual programs in California affects the special education enrollment of LEP students could help state officials and educators measure the success or failures of this significant educational reform. At this time, it is unclear what impact Proposition 227 will have on either LEP representation in special education or the overall academic achievement of LEP students.[15]

The disproportionate representation of LEP students in special education is inextricably connected to issues of race. Like LEP students, more minorities continue to be served in special education than would be expected from their percentage of the general school population.[16] Language difficulties may be only a part of a much larger chain of causation. Clearly, changing racial and ethnic demographics necessitate an examination of how LEP students and multicultural populations are being educated.[17] Without reform and proper assessment of LEP students in regard to special education placement, the increasing racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of students could potentially overwhelm special education programs.[18]



1. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that states accepting federal funding for educational programs must ensure that all children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education" in the least restrictive environment. 20 U.S.C. sections 1400-1491.

2. Paula Olson, Referring Language Minority Students to Special Education, ERIC Digest, at (March 1991)

3. Id.

4. Id. See Alba Ortiz, Assessing Appropriate and Inappropriate Referral Systems for LEP Special Education Students, at (Presented at the Second National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues, 1992).

5. Id.

6. Martha L. Thurlow & Kristin K. Liu, DRAFT: State and District Assessments as an Avenue to Equity and Excellence for English Language Learners with Disabilities 12 (October 2000).

7. Alfredo J. Artiles, et al., DRAFT: Factors Associated With English Learner Representation in Special Education: Emerging Evidence from Urban School Districts in California 2 (November 2000) (presented at the Minority Issues in Special Education Conference, Harvard University, November 2000).

8. Selete Kofi Avoke & Stephanie Wood-Garnett, Language Minority Children and Youth in Special Education, at (March 2001).

9. Thurlow & Liu, supra note 5.

10. Id.

11. Olson, supra note 2.

12. Id. An important California case was Diana v. California Board of Education in 1970. In this class action suit, nine Mexican-American families sued the state of California arguing among other things that Mexican-American students were being over-represented in the state's special education programs. Artiles, supra note 7, at 7.

13. Thomas Parrish, DRAFT: Disparities in the Identification, Funding, and Provision of Special Education, table 2. (November 6, 2000) (submitted to The Civil Rights Project for The Conference on Minority Issues in Special Education in Public Schools).

14. Artiles, supra note 7, at 19.

15. Artiles, supra note 7, at 4.

16. Ortiz, supra note 4.

17. Id.

18. Id.

This content was developed pursuant to cooperative agreement #H324H990004 under CFDA 84.324H between CAST and the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. However, the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education or the Office of Special Education Programs and no endorsement by that office should be inferred.


Cite this paper as follows:

Minow, M. L. (2001). Limited English proficient students and special education. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved [insert date] from


Last Updated: 10/22/2013

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