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Testing ESL Students for Learning Disabilities

Evaluating ESL Students to Determine the Presence of Learning Disabilities


Updated June 25, 2014

Mixed race student studying at desk in classroom
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Testing any child requires preparation, and this is especially true when testing English as a Second Language (ESL) students suspected of having learning disabilities.

Working with ESL Parents - Establish Reliable Communication with ESL Parents

The first and most important step in the testing and evaluation process is establishing reliable communication between ESL parents and the school staff working with the ESL child. Communication is important to the assessment and to ensure ESL parents are well informed about the process and their rights as parents of ESL children who may have learning disabilities. ESL parent involvement in the evaluation ensures:

Effective ESL parent communication can ensure that parents:

Determine the ESL Child's Current Language Abilities

The most important first step in determining the ESL child's readiness for any type of assessment is to determine his current language development. Teachers who are trained in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) can determine the most appropriate way to test the children's level of language development in his native language, and in English. This can be done through:

  • Functional ESL proficiency assessment using information used from interaction with the ESL child or observation;
  • Formal testing using standardized, commercially produced functional English assessments; and
  • Alternate achievement measures such as criterion-referenced and authentic assessments that test basic English language skills.

Determine if Further Testing Should be Conducted

Once the ESL child's functional language abilities are understood, examiners can determine if further testing would be appropriate for the child. It is often recommended that testing for special education should not be conducted until the ESL child has had adequate language instruction to prevent possible skewed test results.

For non-disabled English language students, it can take three to five years to develop speaking proficiency in English. To become proficient in English to achieve well in school can take four to seven years. Consequently, it is important to consider the child's level of English proficiency before referring for a learning disability assessment. For those students who can participate in formal assessment there are several options based on the students' language development level:

  • Using nonverbal intelligence assessments such as the Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence;
  • Testing the ESL child in his native language and in English if possible;
  • Using a bilingual examiner and/or interpreter during assessment;
  • Using receptive format tests for academic and intelligence skills;
  • Assessing the student using an alternative method of diagnosis called Response to Intervention;
  • Assessing with typical standardized assessments, with the understanding that language limitations and cultural differences may artificially lower the students' scores. When this is done, the assessments are used more for general information about the ESL child's current level of skills and not as predictors of future learning; and
  • Conducting follow-up observations and work with the child to validate assessment findings and monitor the ESL child's needs as he progresses in instruction.

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