English Learners with Disabilities: Shining a Light on Dual-Identified Students

Nearly 5 million public school students in the United States are classified as English learners (ELs), a number on the rise in recent decades. From 2000 to 2015, ELs increased from 8.1 to 9.6 percent of the total student population, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Within this group of EL students, nearly 15 percent also qualify for special education services. These students are commonly referred to as “dual-identified,” entitled to receive extra supports for both English language acquisition and learning with a disability.

But this subgroup of dual-identified students is not well understood or well served. Across the country, districts, schools, and educators struggle to discern whether students are lagging because of disability, language proficiency, or both, and then further struggle to provide appropriate instruction and related services that meet the comprehensive needs of each individual student.

Designing policies and practices that meet the diversity of language development and disability needs is inherently difficult work. Indeed, delivering appropriate services and supports for students with disabilities from monolingual, English-speaking families is, by itself, a complex challenge for schools. The work of appropriately identifying and serving students becomes all the more complicated when a student is learning across multiple languages. Disentangling issues of language acquisition and disability in the youngest years, when children are learning to speak, read, and write for the first time, is even more difficult.

One of the largest policy concerns is the disproportionate identification of EL students with learning disabilities. This problem cuts in both directions: Studies suggest that ELs are at risk of being both over- and under-identified for special education services. The EL student population also faces challenges beyond language acquisition. ELs are more likely than non-ELs to live in low-income families, to attend schools with high concentrations of other low-income ELs, and to experience limited or interrupted formal schooling, high mobility, low attendance, and medical problems stemming from unreliable access to health care.3 The EL population is enormously diverse, representing different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and languages spoken. It is also not a static population, as students who are classified as ELs will be reclassified as English proficient.4 These realities further complicate the process of developing equitable and effective strategies for dual-identified EL students.

The following brief provides an overview of the separate but intersecting federal policies that govern the identification of and services provided to English learners and students with disabilities. This overview will frame key opportunities to serve ELs with disabilities more equitably with the aim of helping policymakers, advocates, and practitioners take more strategic action on behalf of these students.