Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Educating ELLs with Significant Cognitive Disabilities:
Lessons Being Learned in One State


Audra Ahumada is Director of Alternate Assessment, Arizona Department of Education, Phoenix. She may be reached at or 602/542-4061

Leila E. Williams Leila E. Williams is Associate Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability, Arizona Department of Education. She may be reached at or 602/364-2811.

Arizona, like many other states, has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and educators across the state are implementing them in their daily instruction to ensure that all students have the academic knowledge and skills they need to be ready for career, college, and life (see ). The local education agencies, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Education, are focused on how to support all students – including English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities – to experience academic success. However, ELLs with disabilities continue to lag behind their peers in making adequate educational gains in the traditional instructional models. And, ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities may experience additional challenges if they have limited or no communication systems.

Educators examine and use various types of data to help improve achievement for students with significant cognitive disabilities. However, the availability of an appropriate English language proficiency assessment is lacking for these students. This article will highlight some of the critical issues in this regard for educators whose primary focus is to deliver meaningful instruction. It will focus in particular on how English language proficiency of ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities is being monitored and language development being determined in Arizona. The lessons being learned in our state reflect the fact that all states are in the process of discovering how to improve instruction and assessment for these students.


Several federal laws – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, English Language Acquisition Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – mandate that ELL students and students with disabilities participate in state achievement assessments and are instructed on grade level academic standards. IDEA further mandates that state education agencies develop alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) for students with significant cognitive disabilities who cannot demonstrate their knowledge on general state assessments, even with accommodations. To comply with federal mandates, the State of Arizona developed an alternate assessment known as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards Alternate (AIMS A). Approximately, 8,000 students with significant cognitive disabilities are assessed with the AIMS A, and approximately 1,500 of them are ELLs.

In Arizona, all educators must have a Structured English Immersion (SEI) endorsement to their teaching licenses. SEI-endorsed teachers are able to provide instruction to ELLs in the English Language Proficiency programs. All Arizona educators, whether they are SEI classroom teachers or instructional personnel, are trained to support students’ instruction as it relates to English language acquisition.

Students identified as ELLs receive specialized instruction by an ELL teacher in a SEI program. However, language and instructional decisions for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are identified as ELLs are made by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which includes an ELL coordinator. Ultimately the IEP team determines the students’ placement as well as the educational program to include language acquisition instruction. Language acquisition for these students is often related to their communication needs including response mode, evolving communication systems, and opportunities for meaningful communication exchanges. Supporting students with significant cognitive disabilities who are also ELLs has presented some instructional challenges for some educators. For instance, a small number of students in this population have a limited symbolic communication system. There is a need to assist educators to identify an effective communication system for those students, continue to move them through the other stages of communication, and improve their language abilities. When students do not have effective communication systems in place, how can they show what they know? The true language supports or needs of ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities may be overshadowed by the desire to work on non-academic skills and not build language acquisition skills.


In 2012, Arizona and four other states participated in an Enhanced Assessment Grant titled, “Improving the Validity of Assessment Results for English Language Learners with Disabilities (IVARED)” and based at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota. Through IVARED, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the five states (Minnesota, Arizona, Maine, Michigan, and California) work together to address the assessment challenges for ELLs with disabilities and seek to improve the validity for results from large-scale content assessments that aim to include the full range of learners (see ). Many of the findings from this research have shed light on the performance of ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities on the AIMS A.

After participating in the IVARED project, the Assessment Unit of the Arizona Department of Education delved deeper into the state’s 2010 and 2011 alternate assessment data, including the number of students identified at any time as students having a Primary Home Language Other Than English (PHLOTE), and their performance on the alternate assessment. When PHOLTE was a proxy for ELL identification, these students showed proficiency in their alternate assessment scores over the last three years. One reason ELL students with significant cognitive disabilities may have shown progress on the AIMS A is that there is great flexibility in the use of accommodations and adaptations to the assessment (e.g., visual supports, plug-ins, read aloud, and prompting and levels of supports for the performance tasks). Many of these accommodations can support both ELLs and students with significant cognitive disabilities.

In addition, state data in all three years of the study shows a discrepancy between the number of students with significant cognitive disabilities enrolled in an ELL program and the number of students identified as having a PHLOTE. Typically ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities are receiving their academic and language instruction in a self-contained classroom with a special educator who is SEI endorsed. This is in contrast to ELLs with a learning disability who could receive part of their instruction in an English learner program and receive special education support through a pull-out or resource setting. Because of the extent of the students’ disabilities, the IEP teams for ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities determine both how the student can demonstrate English proficiency and the language skills most appropriate for the student to continue to acquire as part of their special education program.

However, there were nearly 1,000 students with significant cognitive disabilities identified as ELLs based on their PHLOTE survey that were not identified as ELLs within our student accountability system that uses ELL program enrollment as its criteria. This raises the question of whether we (teachers) are truly considering these students’ language needs or is our emphasis only on their academic needs.

Finally, the alternate assessment data from 2010-2011 provide a comparison of students with significant cognitive disabilities whose home language is English or non-English. The students whose home language is English perform better than their ELL peers.

As a result of the Arizona Department of Education’s involvement with IVARED, the next steps for the state include developing clear guidance on how accommodation decisions are made and implemented for all students with language needs, including ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities, both in the instructional and assessment settings. Recently, the department’s Alternate Assessment unit has added greater emphasis on ensuring that professional development for educators includes strategies to support students who are also ELLs. In addition to professional development and accommodation guidance, procedures are being established in partnership with the state’s Office of English Language Acquisition Services (OELAS) to help guide IEP teams to ensure students receive needed language instruction. OELAS and the Exceptional Student Service Division have worked collaboratively to train special educators and ELL coordinators to ensure students’ language acquisition needs are being considered and to integrate the SEI models into their instructional planning, especially for those students who are in more restrictive special education programs. Because all Arizona educators are SEI trained this can be accomplished by special educators in partnership with the content teachers.


Although Arizona’s educators are SEI endorsed, and the expectation is that ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities will receive instruction that will facilitate English language acquisition, many of the teachers for these students focus on the students’ educational needs, specifically related to academic and functional skills. The state is now moving toward putting greater emphasis on ensuring that students with significant cognitive disabilities have a communication system. However, in Arizona, as in many other states, we have not effectively supported educators on how to ensure they provide a balanced curriculum that includes language acquisition as part of the instructional planning for these students. While we have learned that more training is required to support the implementation of appropriate accommodations that support academic and language acquisition, we have to also help teachers for ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities integrate English language instruction into their communication and content instruction. As mentioned earlier, the IEP teams of some ELLs with disabilities may discuss how to best measure their English proficiency. Perhaps Arizona’s next step is to consider how to monitor students who are unable to demonstrate their language skills on our English language proficiency test because of their severity of their disability. States that joined an English language proficiency consortium (World-Class Instruction and Design and Assessment) are developing and implementing alternate English language proficiency assessments for ELLs with significant cognitive disabilities (see ). Lessons learned from the consortia work and ongoing research will help states like Arizona better support the instructional programs for our English language learners with significant cognitive disabilities.