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August 8, 2012

Understanding Disproportionate Numbers of LEP Students in Special Education

Written By: Arlene Sandberg
X Understanding Disproportionate Numbers of LEP Students in Special Education

Understanding Disproportionate Numbers of LEP Students in Special Education

As an ESL Resource Teacher/Specialist in a Title I Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska I was responsible for over 200 students that spoke more than 20 different languages. I was also a member of our school leadership team comprised of our school psychologist, reading coach and myself. We all sat in on every S.I.T (Student Intervention Team) meeting and found that the numbers of LEP (Limited English Proficient) students that were brought to the S.I.T meetings for possible Special Ed testing were doubled the number of those whose first language was English. This was a major concern for me as well as our team.

LEP Students in Special Education

Most of the time when I observed these students in their classrooms they were just sitting and doing nothing. Some were being very disruptive. I gave workshops in Second Language Acquisition, Strategies for working with LEP students and still the numbers brought to the S.I.T. meetings were unchanged.  What we know about LEP students is that it takes about 1-2 years to be proficient in Conversational English and 5-7 years to be proficient in Academic English if they had formal schooling in their first language.

Specialists believe that about the same percentage of students with disabilities will be found in the general school population should be about the same that is found among the LEP (Limited English Proficient) population in our schools. If this assumption is accurate than 12% of LEP students in the United States should need special education services. However this is not the case. What we know is that LEP students are over represented in Special Education especially in specific learning disabilities and speech impairment classes. (

Possible Reasons for the Disproportionate Numbers of LEP students in Special Ed Programs:

  • They are measured and evaluated in English
  • Inadequacy of instruction in reading
  • Effectiveness of programs used to teach LEP students
  • Lack of knowledge of home country instruction
  • Acculturation issues (culture change)
  • Lack of medical and family history

Separating a learning disability from a language difference

We know that if a student has a disability in their first language they will have a learning disability in their second language. Many school districts have put together Pre- Referral Packets in order to gather much needed information to:

  • determine if sociocultural factors are contributing to learning or behavior problems
  • identify learning and behavioral problems that are not due to sociocultural problems
  • determine if the student responds to sociocultural interventions during the instructional intervention stage

In order for this process to work it will take a dedicated team of teachers and specialists who work with the individual student to determine if a referral for Special Education evaluation should occur. Let’s all make a special effort to make sure that we provide the best programs to help out LEP students achieve. Thank you for making a difference for your students.


About the Author

I am a retired teacher, trainer and consultant with 33 years teaching Elementary, Special Education,and Elementary ESL students and 4 years as an On-Line Curriculum Developer for a Korean English Learning Company. I have a BS in Elementary Education, MS in Special Education and Specialty in ESL. In 2006 I was recognized as the Alaska State Teacher of the Year. I am now living in Tallahassee, Florida with my husband of 43 years, 2 children and 6 grandchildren. I started my very first blog, LMN Tree, at the age of 63 which I hope you will visit.  You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • Ann Taylor
    August 9, 2012

    Thank you so much for the insight and resources you made available. This is an ongoing and challenging issue and it has been difficult to get good information and resources. Thank you for providing both!

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