Tests to Determine If an ESL Student Needs Special Ed

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Assessing children requires preparation, especially when testing English as a Second Language (ESL) students for learning disabilities that require special education services. Learn the best practices for testing such students with this guide.

Communicate With ESL Parents

The first and most important step in the testing and evaluation process is for school staffers to reliably communicate with the parents of ESL students. Communication about the assessment ensures ESL parents are well-informed about the process and about their rights.

Involving ESL parents in the evaluation process allows the educators involved in the assessment to discuss any questions they have about ESL students with parents and to request that the parents provide them with a developmental and social history. In addition, ESL parents can assist in gathering other information, such as medical evaluations or non-academic assessments.

Altogether, effective ESL parent communication can ensure that parents:

Identify the ESL Child's Language Capacity 

Before testing ESL children for learning disabilities, educators should first identify their current language development. ESL teachers can determine the most appropriate way to test the children's level of language development in their native language and in English. This can be done through:

  • Functional ESL proficiency assessment, with information gleaned from encounters with the ESL child or observation
  • Formal testing using standardized, commercially-produced functional English assessments
  • 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 skewed test results.

For ESL students without learning disabilities, it can take three to five years to develop speaking proficiency in English. Consequently, it is important to consider the child's level of English proficiency before referring the student for a learning disability assessment. For students who can participate in formal assessments, several options based on language development level are available:

  • 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 or interpreter during the assessment
  • Using receptive format tests for academic and intelligence skills
  • Assessing the student using an alternative method of diagnosis called Response to Intervention
  • Assessing via typical standardized tests, 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.
  • 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.
3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Statute and Regulations.

  2. Callahan R, Wilkinson L, Muller C. Academic achievement and course taking among language minority youth in U.S. schools: Effects of ESL placement. Educ Eval Policy Anal. 2010;32(1):84-117. doi:10.3102/0162373709359805

  3. Toppelberg CO, Collins BA. Language, Culture, and Adaptation in Immigrant ChildrenChild Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2010;19(4):697-717. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2010.07.003

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.