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Defining mild disabilities with language-minority students.

Defining Mild Disabilities with Language-Minority Students

ABSTRACT: This article considers the special education placement of language-minority

students with mild disabilities as addressed by current eligibility criteria, as well as relevant

research in special education. Problems with assessment, diagnosis, and placement of these

students are a manifestation of problems related to larger issues within the special education

field. The most basic of these is a continuing reliance on the psychometric paradigm. Attempts

to institute reform in the education of language-minority students are categorized into one of

three models, or system approaches: maintenance, improvement, and restructure. * Recognition of the impact of cultural and linguistic differences on learning problems is a relatively recent phenomenon in special education. The development of this specialized focus continues to be heavily linked to the civil rights movement. During the course of the emergence of this specialization, calls for reform have led to subsequent legal, legislative, and educational changes intended to address the major issues of concern. Within this developing field of bilingual special education, some of these issues have included the following: inappropriate assessment procedures and tools, inaccurate differential diagnosis (inability to separate language and culture from learning problems), lack of effective instructional interventions, and inappropriate placements (Baca & Cervantes, 1984; Cummins, 1984; Figueroa, 1982; Omark & Erikson, 1983; Ortiz & Yates, 1983, 1984).

These issues cannot be considered outside the larger institutional context of special education as a whole. More specifically, the problems that have tended to be conceptualized as unique to language-minority and other minority students are systematic problems, which characterize the entire field even when language and culture are not factors to be considered. Finally, these problems are directly engendered by the continued reliance on the medical model as a basis for practice and policy, especially as illustrated in the use of eligibility criteria for students with mild disabilities. In this framework, treatment of the educational needs of language-minority students is not in principle separable from discussions in the wider field such as the regular education initiative (REI), the merger of special and regular education, and the consideration of new paradigms as a guiding framework for research and practice.


There is currently a great deal of discussion about the future role of special education as an educational specialty (Stainback & Stainback, 1984; Wang & Birch, 1984a; Will, 1986). Much of this scrutiny has focused on the effectiveness of special education. The following appear to be problematic areas.

Cost of Assessment

The provision of special education services almost universally is contingent on the establishment of eligibility through the use of various assessment procedures and instruments. A major criticism of this process is the cost involved in determining whether a given child qualifies for service. For example, Ysseldyke et al. (1983) and Shepard and Smith (1981) have presented evidence that a significant portion of special education reimbursement is spent on assessment. For example, Shepard and Smith (1981), in a careful analysis, calculated the typical cost of determining eligibility for Colorado children with learning disabilities. The amount was found to be almost equal to the personnel costs for direct special education instructional and support services for the average pupil. The 21 hours (hr) needed to assess a typical child with learning disabilities for first-time placement could be equivalent to missing 2 weeks of school.

Technical Adequacy of Assessment Instruments

Although the use of tests has constituted a significant portion of the special education enterprise, many researchers have been concerned about the adequacy of many of the most commonly used assessment tools. Specifically, many tests used in special education have low reliability and validity and do not meet acceptable psychometric standards (Coles, 1978; Davis & Shepard, 1983; Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1981; Shepard & Smith, 1983).

Controversy Over Definitions of Disability Groups

Nowhere is the lack of consensus over definitions more evident than in the field of learning disabilities (Coles, 1987). However, this problem is not confined to this single disability. Even where there is a fair amount of consensus regarding definition, such as with mental retardation, there is a great deal of variation with respect to the resulting eligibility criteria used to qualify students for services (Utley, Lowitzer, & Baumeister, 1987).

Problems in Differential Diagnosis

One of the more problematic areas for special educators is the recurring issue of being able to accurately and reliably distinguish between students in the categories describing mild disabilities. There is evidence that it is extremely difficult at present to distinguish between or within the categories describing students with mild disabilities (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Shinn, & McGue, 1982). It appears that there is a significant degree of overlap among students in these categories in terms of social, cognitive, and academic characteristics (Shepard & Smith, 1983; Warner, Alley, Deshler, & Shumaker, 1980).

Lack of Correspondence Between Assessment Data, Categories, and Instructional Practices

One widely voiced criticism of traditional special education assessment information and categorical labels has been the difficulty in translating such data into instructional interventions (Jenkins & Pany, 1978). This dissatisfaction has been responsible, in part, for the increasing popularity of edumetrick or curriculum-based assessment (Howell & Morehead, 1987; Tucker, 1985). Although there is variability in specific approaches and procedures, a common goal is to measure student progress in the curriculum of the local school. There is a moving away from norm-based comparisons on standardized measures. Although some researchers support the continuation of a categorical approach to service delivery (Wilson, 1985), others find such practices increasingly problematic (Gajar, 1979; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Wang, Reynolds, & Walber, 1987).

Questions About the Uniqueness and Effectiveness of Special Education

For some time, one of the unique interventions in special education intervention consisted of psychoeducational or "process" training (Arter & Jenkins, 1979). Interventions of this nature--which attempt to diagnose and remediate deficient visual-motor, perceptual, or psycholinguistic processes--typically were not found outside the realm of special education. A key assumption in this work has been that these abilities are prerequisites for academic success. Increasingly, however, there is mounting evidence that methodologies of this type are ineffective in improving academic achievement (Arter & Jenkins, 1979; Kavale & Forness, 1984). This evidence has caused many to raise questions about the assumption that unique treatments exist and are effective (Gardner, 1977, 1982; Heller et al., 1982; Stainback & Stainback, 1984). For example, Heller et al. concluded:

The evidence indicates that similar

instructional processes appear to be effective with

EMR, learning disabled, and compensatory

education populations. At the present time,

therefore, we find no educational justification

for the current categorization system that

separates these three groups in the schools. If

categorical labels remain necessary for the

provision of services, they should reflect the

types of instruction, resources, and services

that are necessary to meet children's functional


In support of this argument, Algozzine, Morsink, and Algozzine (1988) found that instruction in 40 classrooms serving groups of students designated as emotionally handicapped (EH), educable mentally retarded (EMR), or learning disabled (LD) did not differ to any significant degree.

Socially Constructed Special Education Categories

Apart from other problems with diagnostic categories and labels, it has been argued for some time that these really represent "social constructions," as opposed to fixed, stable entities that provide information about within-child characteristics (Bogdan & Knoll, 1988; Coles, 1987; Mehan, Hertweck & Meihls, 1986; Mercer, 1973). This social construction has been shown to take place on at least two levels, that is, construction of the category itself (Coles, 1987), as well as the assignment of students to a given category (Mercer, 1973; Mehan et al., 1986; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1980).


A key aspect of the medical model is the assumption that a "problem" or deficit needs to be isolated before "eligibility" can be established and "treatment" provided. An analysis of eligibility criteria for special education services reveals the following characteristics: 1. The provision of special education services

for low-achieving students depends on a

formal declaration of eligibility. 2. Eligibility is established according to

specific guidelines that include meeting the

definitional criteria under one of the

predefined categories of handicap. Conversely,

failure to meet the criteria, even where low

achievement is present, results in denial of

special education resources. 3. The system is heavily dependent on a

psychometric model, especially in the sense

that eligibility for specific handicapping

conditions is determined at least in part on

deviations from statistical parameters.

The current national system of special education remains a system of differentiation. Language-minority status within special education is treated as a further differentiation of those with learning problems. Many teachers find that they have to refer students for special education consideration so that they can qualify for special help. Such referrals are expensive, in addition to the other problems previously cited. In the worst case, the use of eligibility and the system on which it is based actually can become a hindrance or obstacle for innovative educational approaches. For example, Wang and Reynolds (1985) documented the implementation of a highly successful intervention program that was terminated because the declassification of students resulted in a net loss of revenue to the school district.


The rapidly growing literature in special education that is focused on minority students has resulted in a variety of suggestions for improving educational practice for these students. An analysis of this literature suggests that efforts in this direction can be categorized into three distinct approaches according to the primary goals and assumptions that are either implicitly or explicitly embraced. For heuristic purposes, these varying approaches will be referred to as a system-maintenance approach, a system-improvement approach, and a system-restructure approach.

System Maintenance

This approach to meeting the educational needs of minority students in special education operates from the implicit or explicit assumption that the current system should remain intact. Adherents of this position tend to support the present uses of eligibility criteria and a categorically based delivery system, with autonomous special education, regular education, and bilingual education structures.

Although localized variance is acceptable under such an approach, the primary focus is on monitoring compliance with existing law and providing sanctions for violation of specific provisions. Many legal remedies imposed as a result of suits by language-minority students and their advocates fall into this category. Moreover, because few institutionalized bilingual special education programs are described in the existing literature, the most likely instructional options for language-minority students under the system-maintenance approach consist of English-immersion classes or English-as-a-second-language programs on a pullout basis.

One problematic aspect of this approach is that it perpetuates the medical model as the basis for practice and service delivery. It includes the implied assumption, embedded in current regulations and eligibility criteria, that mild learning disabilities exist independent of the context in which they are measured and displayed and that there is a "modal" standard that must be met for special education students to be educated with regular education students. Moreover, even though underclassification has been a much less visible issue than misclassification, there is a danger of exclusion from needed services because low-achieving students cannot meet specific criteria even though they need additional academic assistance. For example, the low achievement of Hispanic students on a variety of indicators is well documented in the literature (Arias, 1986; Orfield, 1986). These students may be unable to demonstrate a sufficient ability-achievement discrepancy on standardized norm-referenced measures to quality for services partly as an artifact of the measurement tools (e.g., English-only IQ tests).

System Improvement

This approach is much more common than system maintenance. The system-improvement approach attempts to augment and improve current practices without basic structural changes in the referral-assessment-placement system as a whole. A major goal is to improve existing practices by striving for more accurate referrals, more appropriate assessment, and less restrictive placements. This would permit practitioners to "correctly" distinguish between students with mild retardation, learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and language impairments--and to distinguish these students from those without disabilities. In addition, a major objective of this approach is to disentangle normal second-language acquisition or cultural variables from "true" learning problems. For example, Ortiz and Maldonado-Colon (1986) have discussed common behaviors and characteristics of second-language learners and have pointed out that items usually found on checklists to evaluate inappropriate classroom conduct include many of these same second-language-learner behaviors.

In the attempt to differentiate linguistic and cultural factors from learning problems, many researchers have recommended a more comprehensive focus on both first and second language proficiency, more native-language achievement and intelligence testing, and increased attention to pragmatic language use in natural contexts (Holtzman & Polyzoi, 1987; Mattes & Omark, 1984; Oller, 1983; Ortiz, 1984; Ortiz & Yates, 1987; Simon, 1985). There has been increased focus on more valid and sensitive tests (Mercer, 1979), as well as on prereferral interventions and measurement of instructional environments as prerequisites for consideration for special education placement (Heller et al., 1982; Ortiz & Garcia, 1986; Ortiz & Maldonado-Colon, 1986). Embedded in these efforts is the attempt to weed out "curriculum casualties" or difficulties that are "pedagogically induced" (Cummins, 1984).

Despite the limitations of the system-improvement approach, there is evidence that even slight modifications in established practices can significantly impact problems of misclassification and overidentification. For example, A. T. Fisher (1977) used three different classification schemes to assess and classify a sample of 46 minority students of low and middle socioeconomic status with respect to mental retardation. The first scheme simply used a full-scale IQ score two standard deviations below the mean. The second scheme used multiple test criteria, including subtest scores on an IQ measure, achievement scores, and a visual motor test. The third scheme incorporated a pluralistic approach that used the measures of the second model with the ABIC of the SOMPA (Mercer, 1979). The Adaptive Behavior Inventory for Children (ABIC) is an adaptive behavior measure developed as part of the SOMPA system. This system was designed as a comprehensive psychological assessment system which provides multiple normative frameworks with the intent of yielding a less-biased appraisal of minority students. The results indicated that the full-scale IQ approach led to classification of 34 (75%) of the 46 students as EMR. In contrast, the multiple-test approach led to 28 (60%) of the students being classified as EMR, and the pluralistic approach led to 12 (26%) students with the EMR classification. Other reports suggest that prereferral steps can reduce approximately 50% of initial referrals (Cegelka, MacDonald, & Gaeta, 1987), and prereferral can be seen as an extension of wider consultation-based special education practices currently being implemented and developed (Graden, Casey, & Christenson, 1985; Idol-Maestas, 1983; Idol, Paolucci-Whitcomb, & Nevin, 1986).

These two approaches, which constitute the bulk of work addressing these issues, concede weaknesses and gaps in the current special education system with respect to language-minority students. Although there is variability among authors and proposed remedies, there is at least minimal acceptance of the system as currently structured. That is, once "true" cases of a disability have been identified, there is little questioning of established categories and a general acceptance of the professional boundaries that divide special education, regular education, and bilingual education.

System Restructure

Dissatisfaction with the current system can be found in the criticism leveled at a major report (Heller et al., 1982) of the National Academy of Sciences on the placement of minority students in special education (Gerber, 1985; Wang & Reynolds, 1985). A major criticism of this report focused on the recommendation of steps to achieve more valid referrals, which implicitly incorporated the underlying assumption of "true" disabilities that exist independent of the context in which they are measured and displayed. Support for this criticism is bolstered by recent theoretical developments in the realm of cross-cultural and cognitive psychology. These developments suggest that cognitive abilities cannot be meaningfully measured independent of context and culturally organized experiences (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1982, 1983), as well as a more recently emerging contextualist or interactionist view of human development (Fisher, K. W., & Bullock, 1984; Rogoff, 1982; Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985a, 1985b; Wood, 1980).

This last perspective is somewhat more recent and potentially the one with the most far-reaching impact on the field. Proponents of this perspective suggest that the special education system, as currently configured, requires basic structural changes of its fundamental operating assumptions. How would more effective instructional services be delivered to low-achieving students in this approach? A common element appears to be a merger of special, regular, and, by extension, bilingual education.

Such a restructuring would alter the whole special education process: "Eligibility" for mild handicaps and the current classification systems would be eliminated, more functional approaches would be used to deal with educational problems, and funding for programs would be based on alternative criteria (Epps & Tindal, 1987; Gartner, 1986; Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1984). Gerber and Semmel (1984), for example, have called for treating all referrals as "requests for assistance" rather than attempting to psychometrically validate them, as is now the case. The net effect would be the abolishment of eligibility criteria altogether. The development of a more undifferentiated service-delivery system, whereby the bottom 20% of students, based on achievement variables, would receive direct instruction, appears to be another alternative (Reynolds & Wang, 1983).

Other options that have been considered are direct instruction services to mildly handicapped students within regular education settings with no resource or pullout aspects in the programming (Wang & Birch, 1984a). As some have noted, implementing these options would require significant reform in existing special education legislation and funding patterns (Wang & Reynolds, 1985) as well as revised, perhaps less differentiated, training and professional roles and responsibilities.

Many proponents of the system restructure approach may not be primarily motivated by concern with issues specific to language-minority students in their efforst at reform. Rather, many reforms have been proposed with an eye toward resolving broader educational and social issues. If the premise is accepted that the problems of language-minority students are in fact a part of the larger system, then some type of reform or restructuring of the current delivery system and basic assumptions about disabilities is necessary.


Consideration of the unique problems related to the participation of language-minority students in special education has spawned a rapidly growing body of literature and programs. The preponderance of work in this area has assumed within-child deficits that call for remediation and correction of hypothesized problems. Some have acknowledged gaps and weaknesses in the current system and have proposed alternative procedures, testing tools and models, and interventions, while still accepting the basic structure and theoretical foundations of the current system.

Despite these efforts, problems continue with the education of language-minority students in special education. Careful analyses reveal that these problems are simply manifestations of more fundamental problems that affect the entire field irrespective of cultural or linguistic status. From this perspective, efforts might have to focus more on a fundamental change to the system. The educational needs of language-minority students cannot in principle be totally separated from the needs of special education students in general.

It is apparent that there are direct ties between those concerned with the education of language-minority students in special education and those currently engaged in discussions regarding the REI and, especially, the current debates about the need for a paradigm shift in special education (Poplin, 1988a, 1988b). Although it has been the practice of advocates of language-minority students to consider relevant educational issues as unique to their group of students, perhaps it is time to reconceptualize these issues within the problematic aspects of special education.

ROBERT RUEDA is Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum, Teaching & Special Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
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Author:Rueda, Robert
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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