Evaluating the Bilingual Student

The United States has experienced a significant increase in the number of students with cultural, linguistic, and diverse backgrounds in recent years. There are over 400 different languages recorded for these students. They bring with them new challenges for educators, many who are lacking knowledge or training on how to address the needs of these students. As a result, many of these children are referred to special education services. Without extensive knowledge of acculturation and language factors, educators rely on bilingual assessment specialists to intervene on their behalf.

Despite the well-intended efforts to assist these children, the complex controversy of disproportionate representation of CLD students in special education can cause legal and litigation problems with school districts. Disproportionate representation continues to be an unresolved problem and bilingual evaluators need to understand and be aware of cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic factors that impact the educational achievement of CLD students. Among the disability categories that occur most frequently are Specific Learning Disability, Intellectual Disability, and Emotionally Disturbed.

According to IDEA 2004, safeguards are included in the evaluation process in order to prevent the over-identification of CLD students in special education. For example. the definition of Specific Learning Disability clearly states that a learning problem is not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. These exclusionary factors must be addressed in the Full Individualized Education report.

What can bilingual evaluators do to ensure that a bilingual student is fairly assessed and not misidentified with a disability due to linguistic, acculturation, or low-socioeconomic factors?

Language Factors

Bilingual students enrolled in school progress through different stages in the acquisition of oral and written language skills in English. Most of these students have maintained their native language skills but begin to lose these skills as they receive more instruction in English. Studies by Thomas, Collier, and Cummins indicate that the learning of a second language process can take up to 7 years.

Bilingual evaluators need to possess a theoretical background in second-language acquisition and bilingual education. Oral language testing in the native language, if possible, and level of proficiency in English is critical to determine the appropriate tests that will be used to evaluate the student. Cognitive assessment must be assessed in a student’s dominant language. In many cases, the cognitive assessment will be administered in both the native language and English. Standardized testing is one of the methods used in language assessment, but informal testing, such as engaging in a conversation with the student, State English proficiency testing, teacher/parent feedback, and criterion-referenced testing are also beneficial in determining the student’s level of English proficiency. It is important to be informed of the student’s BIC (Basic Intercommunication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) levels that provide excellent information in the language acquisition process.


Cultural assimilation occurs when immigrant or ethnic minority groups take on the values and lifestyles of the mainstream group. According to Rhodes, Ochoa, and Ortiz in Assessing Culturally and Diverse Students, of all the factors that affect a student’s performance or behavior on a given task, none is most likely to exceed those of culture. Everything that a student feels, believes, does, and thinks can be traced to the culture of his home, community, and society where he was raised. Whether it be that the student is learning the language, accepting the customs, interacting in the community, associating with friends of the mainstream culture, or is in the process of acculturation,   all these factors influence his behavior and test performance. Acculturation is one of the most difficult factors to measure and its effects on the evaluation need careful interpretation. A bilingual evaluator tries to understand the student by becoming familiar with the home culture and if it is a major contributor to his academic performance.

Socio-Economic Factors

Research continually shows that the link between a student’s socio-economic status (SES) and school achievement exists. The correlation is real, not only for Hispanics but for all other races as well. Daniel Willingham, summed up what we think we now know about the SES/Achievement correlation this way:

“On average, kids from wealthy families do significantly better than kids from poor families. Household wealth is associated with IQ and school achievement, and that phenomenon is observed to varying degrees throughout the world. With a more fine-grained analysis, we see associations with wealth in more basic academic skills like reading achievement and math achievement. And the association with wealth is still observed if we examine even more basic cognitive processes such as phonological awareness, or the amount of information the child can keep in working memory.”

In the USA, 33 percent of Latino children and adolescents are living in poverty, which is more than double the 14 percent poverty rate for non-Latino, White children. For those bilingual students who come from low SES, challenges in school are difficult to overcome due to parents having limited English proficiency and cannot provide support at home with homework. Most parents from low SES only have elementary or middle-school levels of education and cannot work in high-paying jobs that allow for the purchase of educational resources that enhance their child’s learning. In fact, many homes have multiple families, including grandparents, who live in crowded conditions with few amenities. For example, they may have limited physical space in their homes to create private or quiet environments conducive to study. They may not own a computer or have the financial resources necessary to complete out-of-class projects.

The Role of the Bilingual Evaluator

The bilingual evaluator must consider all aspects of a student’s academic achievement to provide a fair evaluation of the student’s skills and abilities. It is a complex process that takes into account a student’s home environment, educational history, language proficiency, previous life experiences, along with levels of acculturation. It must be based on the student’s individual needs and what interventions are needed to succeed. in school. Important decisions by the evaluator include choosing the appropriate instruments and procedures that give fair and relevant results. Often, bilingual students score lower than average in crystallized knowledge (Gc) when administered language-loaded subtests. The bilingual evaluator interprets the results of both standard and norm-referenced tests to determine the student’s strengths and weaknesses. Exclusionary factors have to be ruled out as being major contributors to the student’s academic achievement. It is a time-consuming task, but to bilingual evaluators who have the experience and knowledge to assess CLD students, it is a most rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Author: Magdalena Cardona M.ED. Bilingual Educational Diagnostician

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice. The content is based on the author's personal experiences, research, and opinions. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified professional or expert before making any decisions or taking action based on the information provided in this blog.

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