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Supporting California’s English Learner Students Who Have the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities

West | September 11, 2023

California recently took a promising step forward in promoting equity and opportunity for the roughly 20,000 students in the state who are English learners and have significant cognitive disabilities (ELSCD students). After a six-month coaching project in which REL West supported the California Department of Education (CDE) to conduct supplemental analyses of state assessment data, the State Board of Education (SBE) agreed in May 2023 to officially adopt thresholds on the state's new Alternate English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (Alternate ELPAC). This move will help to standardize the state's assessment and accountability system and ensure that all ELSCD students in the state are held to comparable performance standards. 

Who Are EL Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities? 
ELSCD students are a group of students who are learning English as an additional language and who have the most significant cognitive disabilities. As in the general population, the most common disabilities among ELSCD students—both nationally, and in California specifically—are autism and specific learning disabilities.1, 2

Like all students, ELSCD students must be included in their state's assessment and accountability system, including annual assessments of academic performance and language proficiency. Like all students with significant cognitive disabilities, ELSCD students participate by taking alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards—including assessments of English language proficiency (ELP). And, like all students classified as English learners (ELs), ELSCD students are part of a protected class of students entitled to, among other things, language support services to ensure they can access instruction delivered in English.

What Is Reclassification?
While ELSCD students are not expected to "outgrow" their cognitive disabilities, it is a goal that these students eventually develop the English language skills they need to exit from EL status and stop receiving language support services. This exit, referred to in California as "reclassification," is a goal for all EL students, and states and districts are held accountable for ensuring that all EL students reach the state's reclassification threshold at some point before they finish school.

Research has found that EL students with disabilities are more likely than other EL students to remain in EL status for prolonged periods.3 There are likely many reasons for this trend, but one may be that it can be difficult to know with confidence when an EL student with disabilities is truly ready to stop receiving their EL services. Exiting is important, though, for issues of access and opportunity—research has also found that prolonged time in EL status can limit students' access to rigorous learning opportunities and college counseling4, 5, 6 and also affect students' and teachers' perceptions of students' capabilities.7, 8 It is thus critical—if not tricky—for states to set reclassification criteria and thresholds for ELSCD students that support these students to exit from EL status at "the right" moment. 

California's Supplemental Analyses of Alternate ELPAC Thresholds 
The CDE approached REL West to help them identify this "right" moment for California's ELSCD students. Over six months, from November 2022 to April 2023, REL West coached members of the CDE's Assessment Design & Administration Division to conduct a series of exploratory analyses of data from the Alternate ELPAC and the state's alternate ELA assessment. The analyses, which applied descriptive methods from a federally funded report on Title III, helped the CDE to identify the Alternate ELPAC achievement level where ELSCD students' language proficiency appeared to play a diminishing role in their academic content achievement. REL West also coached the CDE in preparing a report summarizing its analyses and findings, which the CDE provided to the SBE in April 2023, and presentations to share its findings with key interest holder groups in the state focused on assessment, English learners, and students with disabilities.  

When the CDE presented its recommendations to the SBE in May 2023, the SBE unanimously accepted the recommendation to use Alternate ELPAC achievement level 3 as the statewide threshold for reclassification. Additionally, the SBE received unsolicited letters from key interest-holders who indicated support for the work done by the CDE and REL West in supporting English learners. The official use of the Alternate ELPAC level 3 threshold will mean that, for the first time in the state's history, all ELSCD students will be held to the same standard of ELP before exiting from EL services. 

Success and Next Steps 
The CDE's success with the SBE in May 2023 was a promising step towards ensuring equity and access for ELSCD students in the state of California. The study also surfaced ongoing opportunities to generate information and evidence to support ELSCD students' education. A key realization that surfaced from the CDE's analyses was that the state lacks comprehensive information about what EL services and academic instruction look like for ELSCD students. This information would clarify the stakes of exiting or remaining in EL status, as it would help policymakers understand how students' environments change (if at all) when they reclassify. Additionally, the CDE may wish to replicate their analyses in future years when more assessment data are available. Luckily, the coaching the CDE received from REL West for this project has prepared the agency to conduct said replications in the future—either in continued partnership with the REL, or independently, using their new capacity and confidence.

1 Christensen, L. L., Mitchell, J. D., Shyyan, V. V., & Ryan, S. (2018). Characteristics of English learners with significant cognitive disabilities: Findings from the Individual Characteristics Questionnaire. Alternate English Language Learning Assessment (ALTELLA).

2 Karvonen, M., & Clark, A. K. (2019). Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are also English learners. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 44(2), 71–86.

3 Umansky, I. M., Thompson, K. D., & Díaz, G. (2017). Using an ever–English learner framework to examine disproportionality in special education. Exceptional Children, 84(1), 76–96.

4 Umansky, I. M. (2016). Leveled and exclusionary tracking: English learners' access to academic content in middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 53(6), 1792–1833.

5 Carlson, D., & Knowles, J. E. (2016). The effect of English language learner reclassification on student ACT scores, high school graduation, and postsecondary enrollment: Regression discontinuity evidence from Wisconsin. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(3), 559–586.

6 Kangas, S. E. N., & Cook, M. (2020). Academic tracking of English learners with disabilities in middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 57(6), 2415–2449.

7 Umansky, I. M., & Dumont, H. (2021). English learner labeling: How English learner classification in kindergarten shapes teacher perceptions of student skills and the moderating role of bilingual instructional settings. American Educational Research Journal, 0002831221997571.

8 Thompson, K. D. (2015). Questioning the long-term English learner label: How categorization can blind us to students' abilities. Teachers College Record, 117(12).


Molly Faulkner-Bond

Molly Faulkner-Bond

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