IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

English Learners with or at Risk for Disabilities

A young girl is sitting and reading a book

English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing group of students in U.S. public schools. They are disproportionately at risk for poor academic outcomes and are more likely than non-ELs to be classified as having specific learning disabilities and speech/language impairment. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in school year 2018-2019 (Common Core of Data, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) data) indicate that approximately 14.1% of students in classrooms across the country received services through IDEA Part B. Nationally, 11.3% of students with disabilities were ELs, a little higher than the percentage of total student enrollment who were ELs (10.2%). However, it is important to distinguish between language and literacy struggles that are due to learning English as a second language and those due to a language or reading disability. For those who have or are at risk for a disability and in need of intervention, it is also important that the interventions are linguistically and culturally appropriate for these children.

Since the first round of competitions in 2006, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has funded research on ELs with or at risk for disabilities. The projects are in broad topic areas, including early childhood; reading, writing, and language development; cognition and learning; and social and behavioral skill development. They vary with respect to the types of research conducted (such as exploration, development, efficacy, measurement) as well as the extent to which they focus on ELs, from ELs as the exclusive or primary population of interest to a secondary focus as a student group within the general population.

As an example, David Francis (University of Houston) explored factors related to the identification and classification of reading and language disabilities among Spanish-speaking ELs. The aim was to provide schools with clearer criteria and considerations for identifying learning disabilities among these students in kindergarten through grade 2. Analyzing data from previous studies, the team found that narrative measures (measures in which narrative responses were elicited, transcribed, and scored) were more sensitive to identifying EL students with disabilities than standardized measures that did not include a narrative component. They also found that the differences in student language growth depended on the language used in the instruction and the language used to measure outcomes. Specifically, language growth was greatest for Spanish-instructed students on Spanish reading and language outcomes, followed by English outcomes for English-instructed students, English outcomes for Spanish-instructed students, and with the lowest growth, Spanish outcomes for English-instructed students.

A number of these projects are currently in progress. For example, Ann Kaiser (Vanderbilt University) and her team are using a randomized controlled trial to test the efficacy of a cultural and linguistic adaptation of Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT). EMT en Español aims to improve the language and related school readiness skills of Spanish-speaking toddlers with receptive and expressive language delays who may be at risk for language impairment. In another study, Nicole Schatz (Florida International University) and her team will be using a randomized controlled trial to compare the efficacy of a language-only, behavior-only, or combination language and behavior intervention for students in early elementary school who are English language learners with or at risk for ADHD.

Overall, NCSER has funded 12 research grants that focus specifically on English learners, dual-language learners, and/or Spanish-speaking children with or at risk for disabilities, including the following:

In addition to the research focused specifically on English learners, many other projects include ELs as a large portion of their sample and/or focus some of their analyses specifically on the student group of ELs with or at risk for disabilities. A few recently completed studies show encouraging results with little differences between ELs and non-ELs. For example, Nathan Clemens (University of Texas, Austin) investigated the adequacy of six early literacy measures and validated their use for monitoring the reading progress for kindergarten students at risk for reading disabilities. As part of this project, the research team conducted subgroup analyses that indicated ELs do not necessarily demonstrate lower initial scores and rates of growth over time than non-ELs and that there are few differences between ELs and non-ELs in the extent to which the initial performance or rate of growth differentially predict later reading skills. As another example, Jeanne Wanzek (Vanderbilt University) examined the efficacy of an intensive multicomponent reading intervention for fourth graders with severe reading difficulties. The team found that those in the intervention group outperformed their peers in word reading and word fluency, but not reading fluency or comprehension; importantly, there was no variation in outcomes based on English learner status.

NCSER continues to value and support research projects that focus on English learners with or at risk for disabilities throughout its various programs of research funding.

This blog was written by Amy Sussman, NCSER Program Officer

Assessing Math Understanding of Students with Disabilities During a Pandemic

For almost two decades, IES/NCSER has funded Brian Bottge and his teams at the University of Kentucky and University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop and test the efficacy of a teaching method called Enhanced Anchored Instruction (EAI), which helps low-achieving middle school students with math disabilities develop their problem-solving skills by solving meaningful problems related to a real-world problem. The research findings support the efficacy of EAI, especially for students with math disabilities. Most recently, Bottge and his team have been researching innovative forms of assessment that more adequately capture what students with disabilities know both conceptually and procedurally in solving math problems. With supplemental funding, IES/NCSER extended Dr. Bottge’s latest grant to test the use of oral assessment to measure student knowledge and compare that with the knowledge demonstrated on a pencil and paper test. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced added challenges to this work when schools closed and students shifted to online education.

Below we share a recent conversation with Dr. Bottge about the experience of conducting research during a pandemic and what he and his team were still able to learn about the value of oral assessment in mathematics for students with disabilities.

What changes did you observe in the intervention implementation by teachers due to the COVID-related shift to online learning?

Photo of Dr. Brian Bottge

The shift to online learning created changes in class size and structure. For 38 days (22 days in classroom, 16 days online through a virtual meeting platform), the middle school special education teacher first taught concepts through a widely used video-based anchored problem, the Kim’s Komet episode of the Jasper Project, in which characters compete in a “Grand Pentathlon.” The teacher then engaged the students in a hands-on application of the concepts by running a live Grand Pentathlon. In the Grand Pentathlon, students make their own cars, race them on a full-size ramp, time them at various release points on the ramp, and graph the information to estimate the speed of the cars. The purpose of both units was to help students develop their informal understanding of pre-algebraic concepts such as linear function, line of best fit, variables, rate of change (slope), reliability, and measurement error. Midway through the study, in-person instruction was suspended and moved online. Instead of working with groups of three to four students in the resource room throughout the day, the teacher provided online instruction to 14 students at one time and scheduled one-on-one sessions with students who needed extra help.

What challenges did you observe in the students interacting with the activities and their learning once they shifted to online learning?

All students had access to a computer at home and they were able to use the online platform without much confusion because they had used it in other classes. The screen share feature enabled students to interact with much of the curriculum by viewing the activities, listening to the teacher, and responding to questions, although they could not fully participate in the hands-on part of the lessons. Class attendance and student behavior were unexpectedly positive during the days when students were online. For example, one student had displayed frequent behavioral outbursts in school but became a positive and contributing member of the online class. The ability to mute mics in the platform gave the teacher the option of allowing only one student to talk at a time.

Were students still able to participate in the hands-on activities that are part of the intervention?

For the hands-on activities related to the Grand Pentathlon competition, the teacher taught online and a research staff member manipulated the cars, track, and electronic timers from campus. Students watched their computer screens waiting for their turn to time their cars over the length of the straightaway. The staff member handled each student’s cars and one by one released them from the height on the ramp as indicated by each student. After students had recorded the times, the teacher asked students to calculate and share the speeds of their cars for each time trial height.

Do you have any other observations about the impact of COVID-19 on your intervention implementation?

One of the most interesting observations was parent participation in the lessons. Several parents went beyond simply monitoring how their child was doing during the units to actively working out the problems. Some were surprised by the difficulty level of the math problems. One mother jokingly remarked: I thought the math they were going to do was as easy as 5 + 5 = 10. The next time my son might have to be the parent and I might have to be the student. You all make the kids think and I like that.

When COVID-19 shut down your participating schools, how were you able to adjust your data collection to continue with your research?

We used the same problem-solving test that we have administered in several previous studies (Figure 1 shows two of the items). On Day 1 of the study (pre-COVID), students took the math pretest in their resource rooms with pencil and paper. Due to COVID-19 school closures, we mailed the posttest and test administration instructions to student homes. On the scheduled testing day during an online class session, students removed the test from the envelope and followed directions for answering the test questions while we observed remotely. On Days 2 and 3 of the study (pre-COVID), an oral examiner (OE) pretested individual students in person. The OE asked the student questions, prompting the student to describe the overall problem, identify the information needed for solving the problem, indicate how the information related to their problem-solving plan, and provide an answer. Due to COVID-19, students took the oral posttests online. The teacher set up a breakout room in the platform where the OE conducted the oral assessments and a second member of the research team took notes.

A picture depicting two sample questions. The first shows a graph of two running paths along with the text, "3. The total distance covered by two runners is shown in the graph below. a. How much time did it take runner 1 to go 1 mile? b. About how much time after the start of the race did one runner pass the other?" The second image features a marble on top of a ramp accompanied with the question "What is the speed of a marble (feet per second) let go from the top of the ramp? (Round your answer to the nearest tenth.)"Figure 1. Sample Items from the Problem-Solving Test

During the testing sessions, the OE projected each item on the students’ computer screens. Then she asked the student to read the problem aloud and describe how to solve it. The OE used the same problem-solving prompts as was used on the pretests. For problems that involved graphs or charts, the OE used the editing tools to make notations on the screen as the students directed. One challenge is that oral testing online made it more difficult to monitor behavior and keep students on task. For example, sometimes students became distracted and talked to other people in their house.

What were the results of this study of oral assessment in mathematics for students with disabilities?

Our results suggest that allowing students to describe their understanding of problems in multiple ways yielded depth and detail to their answers. We learned from the oral assessment that most students knew how to transfer the data from the table to an approximate location on the graph; however, there was a lack of precision due to a weak understanding of decimals. For item 4 in Figure 1, the use of decimals confused students who did not have much exposure to decimals prior to or during the study. We also found that graphics that were meant to help students understand the text-based items were in some cases misleading. The representation in item 4 was different than the actual ramp and model car activity students experienced virtually. We have used this math test several times in our research and regrettably had no idea that elements of the graphics contributed to misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, our findings suggest that the changes made in response to COVID-19 may have depressed student understanding. Performances on two items (including item 4 in Figure 1) that assessed the main points of the intervention were disappointing compared to results from prior studies. The increase in class size from 3–4 to 14 after COVID and switching to online learning may have reduced the opportunity for repetition and practice. There were reduced opportunities for students to participate in the hands-on activities and participate in conversations about their thinking with other students.

We acknowledge the limitations of this small pilot study to compare knowledge of students when assessed in a pencil and paper format to an oral assessment. We are optimistic about the potential of oral assessments to reveal problem-solving insights of students with math disabilities. The information gained from oral assessment is of value if teachers use it to individualize their instruction. As we learned, oral assessment can also point to areas where graphics or other information are misleading. More research is needed to understand the value of oral assessment despite the increase in time it might add to data collection efforts for students with math disabilities. This experience highlights some of the positive experiences of students learning during COVID-19 virtually at home as well as some of the challenges and risks of reduced outcomes from these virtual learning experiences, especially for students with disabilities.

This blog was written by Sarah Brasiel, program officer for NCSER’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math program.

Two-Year Position in the Institute Of Education Sciences (NCSER) to Support Research on Accelerating Pandemic Recovery for Learners With Disabilities

A banner that states "We're Hiring" with the IES logo

The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) in the Institute of Education Sciences is pleased to announce a two-year position to support the work NCSER is undertaking to accelerate pandemic recovery for learners with disabilities. The position, funded through the American Rescue Plan, is for an Associate Education Research Scientist (position series AD-1730).  The incumbent will work with current NCSER staff to support research that addresses pandemic recovery for students with disabilities and manage projects funded through new pandemic recovery grant competitions and initiatives. 

Those interested in applying can submit their application through USA Jobs through an existing position posting for an Associate Education Research Scientist (AD-1730-00) at https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/603739300.

Please note, IES can support a temporary detail to this position through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program. This program provides for the temporary assignment of personnel between the Federal Government and state and local governments, colleges and universities, Indian tribal governments, federally funded research and development centers, and other eligible organizations. More information on an IPA can be found at https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/hiring-information/intergovernment-personnel-act/#url=Overview.

If you are interested in pursuing this opportunity and have additional questions, contact NCSER Commissioner Joan McLaughlin at NCSER.Commissioner@ed.gov.

NCSER is intending to fill this position as soon as possible, so please apply by August 6, 2021.

Mental Health Awareness Month

The past year and a half have brought new meaning to May’s National Mental Health Awareness Month. As students, families, and school staff navigate virtual, hybrid, and new routines surrounding in-person learning, promoting mental wellbeing has been a large topic of discussion for supporting students and educators.

The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funds projects that include an emphasis on the mental health of students with or at risk for disabilities and their educators. Below are examples of such projects, which focus on supporting students who have internalizing disorders or experienced trauma and preventing and reducing burnout in special education teachers.

Internalizing Disorders

At the University of Connecticut Health Center, Dr. Golda Ginsburg tested the efficacy of a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention for youth ages 7-17 in special education with an anxiety disorder as part of the School-based Treatment of Anxiety Research Study (STARS) program. This intervention was designed to be implemented by a school-based mental health clinician and contains seven core modules to help students understand, manage, and cope with anxiety. STARS also includes similarly focused parent training modules. Results demonstrated that parent-reported level of child anxiety decreased after participating in the program. They also suggested that older youth, those with social phobia, and those with more severe anxiety at the start of the study were more likely to benefit from participating in the STARS program.

Dr. Ginsburg has been developing another intervention for anxiety, Teacher Anxiety Program for Elementary Students (TAPES). This is a professional development program that enhances teacher knowledge and skills for identifying and reducing anxiety in students with or without disabilities who have elevated anxiety symptoms. TAPES contains materials informed by CBT to be used class-wide and during teacher-parent-student meetings. The research team will soon be conducting a pilot test of this program.

Additionally, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Stephen Kilgus and colleagues are currently developing the Resilience Education Program (REP), a tier 2 intervention for elementary students at risk for internalizing behaviors. REP consists of three components: A cognitive behavioral instructional curriculum to promote acquisition of social-emotional skills, use of the Check In/Check Out (CICO) system (an existing intervention for promoting the maintenance of acquired skills), and parent skills training that promotes CICO implementation and facilitates positive parent-child relations.

Trauma

At SRI International, Dr. Carl Sumi and colleagues tested the efficacy of the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), a school-based, structured, symptom-focused therapy program for middle school students who have experienced significant trauma and are experiencing related emotional or behavioral challenges. CBITS consists of 10 group therapy sessions and one individual session with a school-based mental health clinician with training on relaxation techniques, cognitive therapy, exposure, and social problem solving. The study found positive impacts of the intervention overall on social-emotional and academic outcomes, but the outcomes varied depending on level of behavioral concerns prior to beginning treatment. Specifically, for youth with more significant externalizing behavior problems (such as aggression), those who experienced CBITS had greater reductions in post-traumatic stress and other emotional and behavioral problems, as well as improved scores on a standardized literacy assessment. In addition, for students with internalizing behavior problems (such as anxiety), participation in CBITS led to better performance on standardized math tests 1 year later.

Teacher Burnout

At Ball State University, Dr. Lisa Ruble and colleagues are adapting an existing manualized intervention for mental health workers, Burnout Reduction: Enhanced Awareness, Tools, handouts, and Education (BREATHE), to be used with special education teachers to reduce burnout. BREATHE is both a prevention and intervention strategy, as it aims to prevent burnout from occurring and reduces burnout when present. Sessions cover CBT stress reduction techniques, meditation and relaxation practices, and social skills training to increase coping skills and the ability to manage stressful job demands.

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Jackie Buckley, program officer for NCSER’s Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence program. Katie Taylor is the program officer for NCSER’s Educators and School-Based Service Providers program.

Making the Most of a Quarantine Year: Meet the IES Virtual Interns!

April is National Internship Awareness Month, and we want to take this opportunity to highlight the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) internship program that IES has been involved in this year and thank our wonderful interns for their contributions to the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).

The two IES Centers hired four interns to work on communication and two interns to work on data science. We asked each of them to tell us a little about themselves, their future plans, and what interested them or surprised them about the internship with IES. Here’s what they said.

 

Alice Bravo is pursuing a PhD in special education in the College of Education at the University of Washington.

Photo of Alice Bravo

My research interests keep evolving but are rooted in early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using applied behavior analysis and developmental science. Specifically, I am interested in the teaching of imitation and communication skills. In 5 years, I hope to be working as an applied researcher and practitioner, conducting research related to early intervention and ASD while providing training and coaching to caregivers and early intervention/early childhood special education professionals. During my internship with IES, I was really interested in and excited by the breadth of research supported by IES. Reading project abstracts related to virtual reality to support student learning was fascinating! 

Fun fact: I love road trips – I have driven up and down the West Coast and across the country twice! 

 

Bonnie Chan is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in statistics and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon.

Photo of Bonnie ChanI am interested in data science and modeling of data. I am interested in applying these approaches to research in the field of medicine or psychology because it has the most potential to help people and one of the most applicable uses of these approaches. As part of my virtual internship, I have learned how to use PANDAs Python package when cleaning data to prepare to create a visualization of grants funded by NCSER on a U.S. map. In addition, I learned a lot about how grants are funded by the department and the types of projects that are funded. In the future, I would like to pursue a master’s degree in machine learning or other statistical approaches for data science and modeling of data. I think working in the federal government would be a great experience and more rewarding in terms of outcomes than in the public sector or at an institution.

Fun Fact: I really like to dance. I have been dancing since I was 3, so that is 17 years. Right now, I mostly do contemporary dance, but I have done ballet, tap, jazz and other types of dance including competitive dancing in high school. 

 

Chandra Keerthi is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in data science at the Wilfrid Laurier University.

Photo of Chandra KeerthiI’m interested in applying statistical models of previous credit ratings to future ones in order to help model human behavior in the area of financial data analysis. I am also really interested in sports analytics, specifically basketball, and in understanding how analytics can help make or sometimes, unintentionally, break teams. In 5 years, I hope to use my skills to help create or innovate a product that will have a positive impact on the world.

Fun fact: I enjoy playing and watching basketball and am a huge fan of sci-fi movies and books (I’m currently reading the first book in the Dune series). In addition, I recently made a program that uses a photo taken from your phone and turns it into 'art' using another art piece (like van Gogh’s The Starry Night) as a reference.

 

Thomas Leonard is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Business at Georgetown University.

Photo of Thomas Leonard

 

My research interest is in the area of finance. As a virtual intern, I had the opportunity to work on editing and examining abstracts across many different fields of education research, and this has sharpened my technical and analytical skills. In addition, it was interesting to see some of my experiences as a student actually being studied in schools across the country as part of the research that IES funds.

Fun fact: I’m an avid poker player. 

 

 

 

Yuri Lin is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Photo of Yuri Lin

I am most interested in cancer genomics, immunology, and psychology. The most surprising detail that I had never thought about before this internship was how government entities like the Department of Education change and are influenced by different presidential administrations. In one of our monthly gatherings, we talked about how each administration has differing visions and values for education, and it struck me that while I saw myself as just a tired college student plinking away at blogs and abstracts in my bedroom, I was actually helping in small ways to fulfill a larger vision for education that sustains across administrations. That was a surprising and rewarding realization to have.

Fun fact: I love music, especially pop music and Russian classical music. There’s so much great music out there, but my favorite would have to be Shostakovich Symphony 5, Movement 4. Nothing feels quite like playing that piece in a huge orchestra with the cymbals crashing, and I hope everyone who hasn’t heard it before can go give it a listen.

 

Shirley Liu is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English with a double minor in philosophy and data science at Lafayette College.

Photo of Shirley LiuMy research interests are in the areas of communication and data and information science. During this internship, I learned a lot about the human and community aspect of research. I have always viewed research and academia as very solitary fields. They are, but after talking to researchers about the friendships they’ve made in the field, I’ve learned that research is a lot more fruitful (and fun) when you’re doing it with someone whose company you enjoy. I really loved learning about Plain Language Principles! I have already started applying that to my own writing. For example, I am probably the only person in my friend group who knows what nominalization is and why it should be avoided.

Fun fact: My favorite hobby is writing! I have won an undergraduate-level prize for my poetry.

 


In addition to working on abstracts, entering data, creating data visualizations, and helping to update compendia of IES-funded research, our interns have also been busy writing blogs. Here are some recent blogs written by our interns: Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month; What Does This Mean for Me? A Conversation about College and ADHD; and Gender Stereotypes in STEM: Emergence and Prevention.