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Major Assignment 1: Data Gathering/Analysis
Candidates will gather data previously collected at the classroom, school, or district level to justify identification of a topic for study.
OBJECTIVE: Identifying and analyzing an educational problem or weakness currently found in student’s classroom or school for the purpose of completing UWA’s Signature Project Stage 1 assignment.
English language learners (ELLs) with special needs constitute a growing segment of the K-12 student population in Alabama and the entire United States. ELLs with disabilities are students who are eligible for both special education and English as a second language (ESL) services. Although ELLs face many obstacles due to their cultural and linguistic diversity, those with special needs have additional challenges that impact their education besides cultural and linguistic differences. As such, they continuously languish in the American school system. Besides, their overrepresentation in special education classes suggests that educators have difficulty distinguishing students with specific learning disabilities from those who only have limited English proficiency. This paper aims to demonstrate that ELLs low proficiency in English affects their overall academic performance, and it is even more debilitating for ELLs with disabilities.
K-12 ELLs with special needs struggle to improve their English language proficiency compared to their non-ELL peers, which eventually affects the former’s overall academic performance.
As an educator in a Title I elementary school that absorbs a large percentage of the county’s students from non-English backgrounds, I collaborate with my peers to identify and employ the best methods of improving the academic performance of ELLs. Besides, provisions by Every Student Succeeds Act mandate that schools demonstrate their efforts to improve the English language proficiency of their ELLs. I observed that ELLs with disabilities experienced significant challenges enhancing their competence in the English language. Primarily, they lacked adequate access to teachers trained to address both the students’ language- and disability-related needs simultaneously. The overrepresentation of ELLs in Special Education, as a result of the scarcity of appropriate assessment personnel and instruments, further exacerbated the problem. Hence, the acquisition of English language proficiency and overall academic performance of ELLs with special needs suffered, thus widening the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs. Therefore, the objective of this study is to evaluate the impact of low English proficiency on the overall achievement of ELLs with disabilities, as well as devise strategies for aiding this segment of the student population.
Figure 1: ACT Aspire Mathematics Achievement Gaps Figure 2: Act Aspire Reading Achievement Gap
The char in figure 1 demonstrates the achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs in Alabama’s public schools. Precisely, the data represents the performance of ELLs and non-ELLs in the ACT Aspire mathematics tests, which is a state-wide standardized test taken by students in Grades 3 through 8, and Grade 10 (A+ Education Partnership, 2015). The chart displays vividly that ELL students lag significantly in their proficiency in Mathematics. As the chart shows, non-ELL students are more likely to score levels III and IV on the ACT Aspire math section. Moreover, the proficiency of ELLs in Mathematics consistently decreases as they advance through the grades.
Similarly, the chart in figure 2 demonstrates the achievement gaps in reading between ELL students and non-ELL students in the same grade. The data from the ACT Aspire Reading section shows that ELL students were less likely to score on Levels III and IV on the ACT Aspire reading section. Understandably, the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students in the earlier grades is broad. However, there is little improvement in this achievement gap by the time they get to the 10th grade. In fact, in the 10th grade, there is a significant gap between ELLs and non-ELLs reading proficiency.
Determining the number of ELLs with disabilities in Alabama is difficult due to the lack of publicly available data on students who are both ELLs and have an identified disability. Furthermore, research confirms that educators often transfer ELLs to special education due to deficiencies in identifying and assessing ELLs with special needs (Park & Thomas, 2012). Nevertheless, Watkins and Liu (2013) observed that except for California, which has a large percentage of ELLs with special needs, most states, including Alabama, provide special education services to less than 0.5% of the ELL population.
Low proficiency in English has far-reaching implications on overall student achievement. Research proves that students who report high levels of self-perceived English language proficiency perform well in other disciplines (Martirosyan, Hwang, & Wanjohi, 2015). The charts in figures 1 and 2 prove a positive correlation between low proficiency in reading and low performance in other subjects such as Mathematics.
Cummins’(1979) threshold hypothesis suggests that the higher a student’s language proficiency is, the more content he/she will be able to demonstrate mastery in the target language. Therefore, as the student’s ability in language increases, so does their performance in other assessments carried out in the same vocabulary. In the same vein, ELLs with low proficiency in English perform poorly in other disciplines because the tests are in English. It demonstrates significant flaws in the assessment methods that educators use to evaluate the competence of students from non-English backgrounds. Further, it indicates that ELLs with disabilities face significantly more significant challenges in improving their performance in English and overall academics.
I am planning to use a mixed methods research methodology to fill the knowledge gap on the challenges of ELLs with special needs, as well as assess the effectiveness of training special education teachers to provide ELL services. I will conduct surveys in different school districts in Alabama to identify students who qualify for both English as a Second Language and Special Education services. Special education teachers in school districts with the most ELLs with special needs will undergo training to address the language needs of ELLs with special needs. Researchers will then correlate students’ self-perception of English proficiency and their overall academic achievement.
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