Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities
Accommodations Considerations for English Language Learners with Disabilities
The American education system has always faced the challenge of educating students who are not yet proficient in English. Likewise, it has always faced the challenge of educating students who experience a disability. Recent reforms around accountability have drawn attention to the instructional and assessment needs of students who fall into both categories. In this article, we address several key considerations that educators at all levels – state, district, and school – must keep in mind when making instructional and assessment-related decisions for English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities.
The new Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics place an unprecedented emphasis on language. As noted by the Understanding Language initiative co-leaders Kenji Hakuta and María Santos, the Common Core State Standards “raise the bar for learning, call for increased language capacities in combination with increased content sophistication, and call for a high level of discourse in classrooms across all subject areas” (Quinn, Cheuk, & Castellón, 2012, p. ii). In English language arts, for example, students will have to comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, construct effective arguments, and convey intricate and multifaceted information (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010a). In math, mathematically proficient students will be able to understand and use stated assumptions, definitions, and previously established results in constructing arguments; they will be able to make conjectures and build a logical progression of statements to explore the truth of their conjectures; and they will be able to justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b).
Further complicating matters, ELLs with disabilities must take two different types of assessment for accountability purposes: content assessments in which knowledge of the practices of the discipline is measured, and language proficiency assessments in which proficiency in discipline-specific language is measured. English language proficiency assessments are now required to correspond with the types of texts, problems, and tasks that students must perform on content assessments. Hence, characteristics of language found on language proficiency tests will mirror the types of language used in content assessments as never before.
In 2012, two Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) State Collaboratives on Assessment and Student Standards (i.e., the English Language Learners and Assessing Special Education Students collaboratives) undertook the task of creating the new resource, Accommodations Manual: How to Select, Administer, and Evaluate Use of Accommodations for Instruction and Assessment of English Language Learners with Disabilities (CCSSO, in press). Its purpose is to establish general guidelines for states and districts to use. When published in its final form, states and districts will be able to adapt the manual (adding their respective policies and procedures) to be followed by educators at the school and district levels charged with making accommodations decisions.
The manual presents the following five-step process for schools and districts (CCSSO, in press):
- Expect English language learners with disabilities to achieve grade-level academic content standards.
- Learn about accommodations for instruction and assessment.
- Select accommodations for instruction and assessment of individual students.
- Administer accommodations during instruction and assessment.
- Evaluate and improve accommodations use.
In the remainder of this article we provide an overview of steps 2 and 5.
The accommodations manual defines accommodations as “procedures and materials that increase equitable access during instruction and assessments for ELLs with disabilities and generate valid assessment results that show what ELLs with disabilities know and can do.” (CCSSO, in press). The manual makes clear that accommodations provided to students on assessments must also be provided during classroom instruction. In certain instances, some accommodations may not be appropriate for use on certain statewide assessments (e.g., read aloud on reading assessments). Educators should consult their state policies about the appropriate use of accommodations on assessment.
Accommodations for ELLs with disabilities should be selected based on an individual student’s needs. Therefore, a particular student may have accommodations identified for ELLs as well as students with disabilities. Examples of accommodations for ELLs include (CCSSO, in press):
- The use of English language reference materials in which students are allowed to look words up in a dictionary or glossary.
- Oral response in English in which students are allowed to give their answers orally as opposed to in writing.
- Written translation in which students access instruction and assessment content through a translated version in their native/home language.
Examples of accommodations for students with disabilities include (CCSSO, in press):
- Use of an alternate location to minimize distractions for students who are easily distracted by other students.
- Audio description of instructional or test content for students who are visually impaired.
- Calculation assistance (i.e. the use of a calculator, abacus, or arithmetic table) for students whose disability affects mathematics calculation but not reasoning.
It is important to note that accommodations do not remain static throughout a student’s education. As ELLs with disabilities become more proficient in English, their need for language-related accommodations may decrease (CCSSO, in press). The same is not necessarily true of disability-related accommodations. For example, a student who is blind will always require some sort of accommodation in order to have access to instructional tasks and test items, even though the specific accommodations may change.
Educators need to carefully consider students’ strengths and needs with respect to language and disability in selecting an appropriate suite of accommodations for each student. According to the manual, accommodations decisions should be individualized based on the particular language- and disability-related challenges faced by ELLs with disabilities. Students with high English language needs and low disability-related needs will require more language-based accommodations, while their counterparts with high disability-related needs and low English language needs will require more accommodations that remove disability-related barriers (CCSSO, in press).
Step 5 in the manual highlights key considerations in evaluating and improving use of accommodations during instruction and assessment. Particularly with the advent of technology-based assessments, it is possible to collect powerful data that can support decision making regarding policy development and implementation, resource allocation, and instructional and assessment practices. However, “having” data and “using” data in thoughtful, proactive ways that may improve student learning are different.
Before the “evaluation” process can begin, it is important for decision makers to give careful thought to the purpose and components of the “evaluation” so it can inform practices at the district and school levels as well as at the student level. Making such decisions prior to implementation of accommodations makes it possible to collect data that will inform subsequent evaluation and decisions.
The manual identifies seven key questions to consider at the district or school level (CCSSO, in press):
- Are policies in place to ensure ethical testing practices, standardized administration of assessments, and test security practices are followed before, during, and after the day of the test?
- Are procedures in place to ensure test administration procedures are not compromised with the provision of accommodations?
- How many ELLs with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans are receiving accommodations?
- Are students receiving accommodations as documented in their IEP and 504 plans?
- Are procedures in place to ensure test administrators adhere to directions for the implementation of accommodations?
- What types of accommodations are provided and are some used more than others?
- How well do students who receive accommodations perform on state and local assessments? If students are not meeting the expected level of performance, is it due to the students not having had access to the necessary instruction, not receiving the accommodation, or using accommodations that were not effective?
Questions to guide evaluation at the student level may include the following (CCSSO, in press):
- What accommodations are used by the student during instruction and assessments?
- What are the results of classroom assignments and assessments when accommodations are used versus when accommodations are not used? If a student did not meet the expected level of performance, is it due to not having access to the necessary instruction, not receiving the accommodations, or using accommodations was ineffective?
- What is the student’s perception of how well the accommodation worked?
- What combinations of accommodations seem to be effective?
- What are the difficulties encountered in the use of accommodations?
- What are the perceptions of teachers and others about how the accommodation appears to be working?
In addition to identifying the “right” questions to ask at the “right” time, it is important to have the “right” people involved in the evaluation process. For district and school level discussions, individuals charged with policy decisions regarding curriculum and instruction, assessment, and student performance should be involved. When considering effectiveness on the student level, members of the student’s ELL/IEP team(s) should be involved. The manual includes adaptable forms/tools that can be used to gather information from the student, teacher(s) and team members, and school/district administrators.
Earlier in this article, we discussed the impact of Common Core State Standards on all learners – and in particular, English language learners with disabilities. Use of accommodations is one critical way of offering these students increased access to sophisticated content and “...a high level of discourse in classrooms across all subject areas.” To facilitate this, educators and administrators need to consider the impact of their policies, resources, and practices. Resources described in this article and developed by the National Center on Educational Outcomes and the CCSSO State Collaboratives on English Language Learners and Assessing Special Education Students offer districts and schools valuable tools to facilitate their journey to provide ELLs with disabilities access to instruction that will help to bridge opportunity-to-learn gaps and navigate the assessment experience.
Council of Chief State School Officers. (n.d.). Accommodations manual: How to select, administer, and evaluate use of accommodations for instruction and assessment of English language learners with disabilities (1st ed.). Washington, D.C.: Assessing Special Education Students and English Language Learners State Collaboratives on Assessment and Student Standards, Council of Chief State School Officers.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010a). Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010b). Common Core State Standards for mathematics. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_Math%20Standards.pdf
Quinn, H., Cheuk, T., & Castellon, M. (2012). Understanding language: Challenges and opportunities for language learning in the context of Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards: Conference overview paper. Retrieved from http://ell.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Conference%20Summary_0.pdf