English Learners With Special Education Needs Considerations

  • Title III of NCLB (reauthorized as Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015) and other federal laws require that English Learners (ELs) who have been identified as having special education needs must receive both EL services and the appropriate special education services. Under the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the U.S. Department of Justice and OCR, EL students who have a disability must be identified and evaluated for special education services in a timely manner, as would any student suspected of having a disability.

    Please consider the following checklist when referring and evaluating EL students for Special Education Services.

    Assessing English Learners for Special Education Needs: Considerations and Guidelines

    1. EL students in need of special education services must be identified and evaluated for disabilities in a timely manner.
    2. EL students suspected of having one or more disabilities must be evaluated promptly to determine if the EL has a disability and whether the EL student needs disability-related services.
    3. There is no waiting period or time limit on when EL students may be referred for a special education evaluation.
    4. Disability evaluations may not be delayed because of a student’s limited English proficiency or the student’s participation in the EL program.
    5. Educators must not identify or determine that EL students are students with disabilities  solely because of their limited English language proficiency.
    6. If an EL student is evaluated for special education services, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams must include someone with expertise in second language acquisition (i.e. EL Teacher )
    7. EL screeners and assessments should be considered as part of special education evaluations.
    8. IEP teams must consider the English language proficiency of ELs with disabilities in determining appropriate assessments and other evaluation materials.
    9. When evaluating an EL student, special education evaluations must be provided in the child’s native language, unless it is clearly not feasible to do so. This will help ensure the student’s language needs can be distinguished from their disability-related needed.
    10. It is necessary to ensure that parents of ELs have the means to understand the proceedings of the IEP team meeting. Staff must arrange for an interpreter and translate documents.
    11. Evaluations must use appropriate methods to carefully measure the student’s abilities and not the student’s English language skills.
    12. EL student with disabilities are entitled to both language assistance and disability related special education services.
    13. EL students with disabilities must be included in accountability testing.
    14. IEP team process must be used to determine whether students need accommodations or should take an alternate assessment.
    15. There are no alternate English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards for EL students with disabilities.
    16. Should parents decline disability-related services, the district and the school remain obligated to provide language services to ELs, unless parents decline EL services as well.
    17. EL and special education professionals collaborate and communicate before, during, and at the point exit from special education
    18. To prevent over- and under-identification when compared to non-ELs, educators must accurately determine whether ELs are eligible for disability-related services.

    Four potential factors that may contribute to the misidentification of special education needs, and learning disabilities among students who are ELs:

    • The evaluating professional’s lack of knowledge of second language development and disabilities
    • Poor instructional practices
    • Weak intervention strategies
    • Inappropriate assessment tools



    1. U.S Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights “Dear Colleague” Letter re English Learner Services. January 7, 2015.


    1. U.S Department of Education. English Learner Toolkit for State and Local Education Agencies (SEAs and LEAs): Chapter 6.


    1. Butterfield, J. (2014). Meeting the needs of English learners with disabilities: Resource book: Goleta, CA: Santa Barbara County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA).