Language Policy

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 567–589 | Cite as

Reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities: the intersectionality of improbabilities

  • Jamie L. SchisselEmail author
  • Sara E. N. Kangas
Original Paper


In the context of the United States K-12 school system, reclassification processes of emergent bilinguals are laden with high-stakes assessments. Largely absent in reclassification scholarship is the consideration of how reclassification policies uniquely affect those learners with identified disabilities. Applying an intersectionality lens that foregrounds political and structural critique, we conducted an interpretive policy analysis of reclassification policies in two states, New Mexico and California. In the analysis, we examined the coalescence of federal and state policies governing reclassification procedures along with assessment designs and practices as they impact the educational realities of emergent bilinguals with disabilities. The analysis illuminated how existing policies and practices marginalize emergent bilinguals with disabilities by making reclassification improbable for students with intersecting disability and second language acquisition needs. We argue that the unlikelihood of being reclassified as Fluent-English Proficient has profound educational consequences for emergent bilinguals, who over time may become disproportionately represented in both special education as well as the long-term English learner population in schools.


Assessment Emergent bilinguals Language education policy Reclassification Students with disabilities 


In recent years, the reclassification of United States’ K-12 emergent bilingual students from their status as English learners (ELs) to English-proficient students has captured the attention of scholars and educators (Linquanti and Cook 2015; Mahoney and MacSwan 2005; Thompson 2015a, b; Umansky and Reardon 2014). Reclassification processes—and the macro policies that drive them—raise critical concerns especially regarding the expanding role assessments play in determining proficiency in the English language (Linquanti 2001; Mahoney and MacSwan 2005; Robinson-Cimpian and Thompson 2016). Extant literature has problematized the reliance on assessments, particularly academic content assessments, because they can serve as a potential barrier to reclassification (Linquanti 2001; Robinson-Cimpian and Thompson 2016), contributing to the increase of emergent bilinguals classified as long-term ELs (L-TELs)—students who spend 5–7 years or more receiving language services without being reclassified as Fluent-English Proficient (R-FEP; Menken et al. 2012).1

Largely absent in the research is consideration of the unique effects of reclassification policies for emergent bilinguals with identified disabilities. Research has already shown that macro policies and their local enactments create multiple disadvantages for emergent bilinguals with disabilities (Kangas 2014, 2018). Further, studies on the schooling experiences of L-TELs reveal that many of these learners have an identified disability (Burke et al. 2016; Thompson 2015b) or a history of special education referral (Kim and García 2014). After finding that roughly one in every three L-TELs in one district have identified disabilities, Thompson (2015a) questioned the role of assessment practices in delaying English proficiency reclassification. This question was fully warranted, considering that more recently, Umansky et al. (2017), found that emergent bilinguals with disabilities were unable to meet reclassification criteria—that are largely determined by assessments—and thus, as time goes on, contribute to a “reclassification bottleneck.” Echoing the concern about the reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a leading national education nonprofit, has cited reclassification policies and practices as pressing issues facing U.S. public schools as they educate emergent bilinguals with disabilities (Park et al. 2016). Complicating matters, broader accountability measures for emergent bilinguals with disabilities that introduce assessments into decision-making processes of reclassification are reinforced by governmental agencies, such as the Office for Civil Rights, that historically have sought to protect the rights of these learners. Thus, the CCSSO has called upon researchers and policymakers alike to carefully (re)examine the role of assessments in the reclassification process.

In light of these alarming findings, we argue that emergent bilinguals with disabilities have the most to lose from reclassification policies reliant on assessments. Yet at the same time, we note that a complete removal of assessments from reclassification can leave emergent bilinguals with and without disabilities subject to inconsistent criteria. Thus, we advocate for reclassification policies that are flexible and responsive to emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Specifically, we advocate an approach to reclassification that relies on interdisciplinary teams of education professionals, with parents/guardians and learners, working together to support emergent bilinguals and their educational needs. The need for more specific guidance is pressing because “practitioners are […] at a loss for how to best ensure that their ELLs with disabilities exit at the proper time and do not languish in ELL programs when they could be better served through other instructional services” (Park et al. 2016: 20).

We apply an intersectionality framework (Crenshaw 1989, 1991) to develop a comprehensive approach to analyze reclassification policies. Our examination of two focal states, New Mexico and California, illustrates the confluence of macro-level federal and state policies governing reclassification procedures, along with assessment designs and practices as they impact the educational realities of emergent bilinguals with disabilities. This framework enhances the criticality of our analysis, troubling and disrupting current policies and approaches. The following research question guided our inquiry: How does the intersectionality of policies (e.g., education, assessment) inform reclassification processes for emergent bilinguals with disabilities? In answering this question, we explore how the intersectionality of assessment and education policies can create multiple roadblocks for emergent bilinguals with disabilities to meet reclassification criteria. The analysis concludes by positing how reclassification can serve as a contributing factor to the overrepresentation of (1) emergent bilinguals in special education and (2) the L-TEL population among emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

Overview of reclassification practices and policies

Laden within reclassification processes for emergent bilinguals are annual assessments originating from federal educational policies. Each year, these assessments serve—whether in part or in whole—as the basis for emergent bilinguals’ reclassification eligibility. Emergent bilinguals with disabilities must meet two assessment requirements—one based on their classification as ELs and another based on their identification as students with disabilities. Assessment policies for students with disabilities and emergent bilingual students require annual assessments to measure academic development and, with emergent bilinguals, English proficiency as well. Yet, as we will demonstrate, these federal and state policies were not developed with emergent bilinguals with disabilities in mind. We first provide an overview of reclassification as a process and then explicate how particular policies made reclassification an assessment-laden enterprise for learners who are the most challenging to assess—emergent bilinguals with disabilities.


Reclassifying, or exiting, an emergent bilingual occurs when her institutional status as an EL is redesignated to reclassified as Fluent-English Proficient, which introduces a shift in educational programming (Linquanti and Cook 2015; National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing 2010). To determine eligibility for reclassification, federal policies require schools to use emergent bilinguals’ scores from annual standardized English language proficiency (ELP) assessments. Yet, there is variability at the state level in enacting this federal policy. For example, the threshold of which proficiency levels are deemed sufficient and necessary for reclassification varies with each state (Linquanti and Cook 2015; National Research Council 2011; Wixom 2015).

In the U.S., the majority of states employ one reclassification criterion: an ELP assessment (Linquanti and Cook 2015; Ragan and Lesaux 2006). Reclassifying emergent bilinguals on basis of an ELP assessment requires meeting a cut score based on an overall average (i.e., a composite score) or scoring at a proficient level across four modality domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking (Linquanti and Cook 2015). Other states have broadened the scope along a continuum of reclassification criteria, including as many as four reclassification criteria such as state assessments, academic grades, teacher agreement/input, and parent consultation (Linquanti and Cook 2015; National Research Council 2011). Regardless of the number of criteria, federal policies have established assessments at the core of the reclassification process.

Federal policies for assessing students with disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA) guaranteed the rights of students with disabilities to access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), to which their peers without disabilities had long been entitled. In addition to specifying that students with disabilities receive specialized services, including special education and related services,2 a 1997 amendment to IDEA also requires that these students participate in state and district assessments with the possibility of receiving accommodations (U.S. Department of Education 2005b). The inclusion of students with disabilities in these assessments ensures that their academic progress is routinely measured and not ignored, but parents, teachers, and students alike agree that the costs may outweigh the benefits (Klehm 2014; Leone and Whitson 2013; Pazey et al. 2015). Teachers have questioned the validity of the high-stakes assessment scores for students with disabilities and further reported that many accommodations such as extra time were too generic to be effective (Klehm 2014). Additionally, some parents have questioned assessment practices as a violation of students with disabilities’ rights, and thus, have pursued legal action against schools and states (Yell et al. 2012). Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Education (2005a) purports that inclusion of students with disabilities in state testing aids in accountability and higher educational expectations:

when students with disabilities are part of the accountability system, educators’ expectations for these students are more likely to increase. In such a system, educators realize that students with disabilities count and can learn to high levels […]. Only by including all students in accountability measures will certain unintended negative consequences be avoided (p. 9).

As testing became an accountability facet of later reauthorizations of IDEA, the law also stipulated that in order to gauge the learning of students with disabilities, the “playing field” needs leveling. To accomplish this, students with disabilities while taking state and district assessments may be entitled to (1) accommodations, such as testing in a quiet location, taking several breaks, and having instructions repeated, among others; (2) alternate assessments or modified assessments, or (3) assessments with alternative achievement standards (i.e., standards that are adjusted from the current grade level). In part, the accommodations or altering of assessments are specified by each student’s Individualized Education Program (U.S. Department of Education 2005a)—a legal document that identifies the tailored learning plan and services for students with disabilities. Not all students with disabilities, however, qualify for accommodations or alternate assessments, as their disability may not impact their performance on the assessment. When a student qualifies for accommodations, three factors determine the type of accommodations she may receive: the student’s abilities and qualities, the properties of the assessment, and the state’s official policies on accommodations (Jamgochian and Ketterlin-Geller 2015). Alternate formats of the assessment are only intended for “the small number of students with disabilities who are unable to participate in the regular grade-level State assessment, even with appropriate accommodations” (U.S. Department of Education 2005a: 15). That is, alternate assessments are the recourse for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Alternate achievement standards, also for students with significant cognitive disabilities, are arguably the least common. The U.S. Department of Education (2005a) restricts use of modified standards to 1% of all tested students. This restriction is intended as a protective mechanism against low standards for students with disabilities: “This cap protects students with disabilities and provides a safeguard against assigning lower-performing students to assessments and curricula that are inappropriately restricted in scope, thus limiting their educational opportunities” (U.S. Department of Education 2005a: 7). Although schools can petition the 1% cap if necessary, the federal government attests that such circumstances are rather rare.

Participation in state and district testing is further reinforced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA 2015), the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Although ESSA has constrained the reach of federal assessment policies in enforcing accountability, students with disabilities, as well as other at-risk students under Title I,3 still participate in annual testing in Grades 3 through 8 and one grade in high school in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics (Council for Exceptional Children n.d.; U.S. Department of Education n.d.). In alignment with IDEA (1975), under ESSA (2015) students are to receive to the same accommodations or alternate forms of testing in accordance with state guidelines (Jamgochian and Ketterlin-Geller 2015). While IDEA (1975) provides specific guidance for the educational rights of students with disabilities, the reauthorizations of ESEA makes the academic achievement of students with disabilities “everybody’s business, not just the business of special education teachers” (U.S. Department of Education 2005b: 1). With the passing of ESSA, it is clear that assessing students with disabilities will continue. What is less apparent is whether the assessments will protect students with disabilities or continue to reify “unintended and deleterious consequences for the very students the reforms initially purported to assist” (Pazey et al. 2015: 366).

Federal policies for assessing emergent bilinguals

Understanding policies and practices of testing emergent bilinguals requires an examination of federal and state policies, as well as guidelines from test developers. Formal inclusion in assessments with test accommodations for emergent bilinguals began in 1996 with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): a low-stakes, annual national standardized assessment for ELA, mathematics, and science. The 1996 NAEP guidelines for administering the assessments with accommodations aimed to increase participation of students with disabilities and emergent bilinguals—1 year before federal policies required inclusion in testing with IDEA (1997) for students with disabilities and 5 years before No Child Left Behind (NCLB 2002) for emergent bilinguals. In 2001, with the passage of NCLB, emergent bilinguals were officially classified as a subgroup population of students to be included in testing, though the temporary nature of the EL classification was criticized (Crawford 2004). Title I mandated the participation of emergent bilinguals in accountability systems comprised of annual, standardized testing in ELA and mathematics with accommodations. Title III of NCLB addressed the specific educational needs of emergent bilinguals, including annual ELP assessments (NCLB 2002). The rationale in NCLB for testing emergent bilinguals aligns with the rhetoric and rationale for including students with disabilities to “level the playing field” to ensure high standards in education through inclusion in accountability systems.

Accommodations have been the most prevalent method to include emergent bilinguals in annual academic content assessments. Yet, few accommodations have been found to be beneficial for emergent bilinguals. In the latest meta-analysis, Kieffer et al. (2012) found limited support for accommodations of simplified English, English glossaries, administration of the test in the language that matches the medium of instruction, and extended or untimed tests. Researchers have continued to raise concerns with the validity of inferences from accommodated test scores (Faulkner-Bond and Sireci 2015; Wright 2006), questioning the high-stakes decisions made based on test scores (Menken et al. 2014). The lack of flexibility in policies has further disadvantaged emergent bilinguals by disregarding scores on tests in languages other than English. Although students in a Spanish bilingual program perform better, on average, on Spanish language content assessments than their monolingual counterparts on English language content assessments in Colorado, the Spanish test scores are not counted toward the school ranking and thus have “zero impact” (Escamilla 2006: 194). Eighth-grade emergent bilinguals in a Chinese–English bilingual program reported overwhelming negative experiences with standardized testing, and attributed positive performance to luck rather than seeing tests as evidence of their learning (Yee 2015).

With ESSA, all assessment policies for emergent bilinguals now are listed within Title I of the federal policy. This change increases attention and accountability demands on ELP testing (Llosa et al. 2016). The change in policies has provided states two options for assessing newly arrived emergent bilinguals. For the first option, emergent bilinguals can be exempted from ELA, mathematics, and also ELP assessments during their first year in school but must take these tests in their second year. The results of these tests in the second year are included in accountability reports, indicating the results in relation to academic performance indicators or a predetermined scale that is used for all students. The second option allows states to have emergent bilinguals take all assessments beginning with their first year. For year two, emergent bilingual student scores are reported as growth from year one to year two, and for year three the scores are reported in relation to academic performance indicators (Linquanti and Cook 2017). In relation to reclassification, ESSA stipulates that former ELs are monitored for 4 years and states can choose to aggregate those scores for any span (0–4 years) within the EL subgroup for accountability reporting.

For L-TELs specifically, policymakers have reexamined reclassification criteria. Currently, the policy states: “(ii) for English learners, for increases in the percentage of such students making progress in achieving English language proficiency, as defined by the State and measured by the assessments described in subsection (b)(2)(G), within a State-determined timeline” (ESSA 2015). The proposed time limit frames a reclassification deadline as providing incentives to improve educational opportunities for emergent bilinguals. Yet, creating a deadline has the potential to prematurely exit students, introducing a host of additional issues. Although states do not preclude emergent bilinguals from graduating high school (Wixom 2014), a higher proportion of emergent bilinguals and L-TELs drop-out of school (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] 2016). Data on those students who have been reclassified are not available. Such issues around federal policies for assessing emergent bilinguals and students with disabilities lead us to posit that there is no simple solution to addressing the myriad of criteria for reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

Conceptual framework

The unique position of emergent bilinguals with disabilities requires a conceptual lens that encompasses the confluence of interacting special education and language education policies around the reclassification policies within institutions. One such framework is intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989, 1991), which examines how individuals who embody multiple minority categories are systematically marginalized as these categories intersect. Rooted in a critical, emancipatory tradition, intersectionality as a theory interrogates how external forces erase the differences among and unique needs of intersectional individuals and how this erasure perpetuates oppression. In the context of this study, we argue that emergent bilinguals with disabilities are intersectional individuals, representing minority statuses based on language, ability, and in many instances, race. We also argue that their collective experience of historic and systemic disadvantage is profound, as reclassification policies and structures often ignore or fail to account for their distinct educational needs as assets.

From its very inception, intersectionality examined the role of institutional and political systems in creating the inequalities experienced by those whose identities are at an intersection, or even multiple intersections (see Crenshaw 1989, 1991). Research has applied intersectionality in ways that focuses primarily on identity, which has garnered criticisms from leading intersectionality scholars (see Anthias 2012; Cho et al. 2013; Guidroz and Berger 2009; Núñez 2014). Although we acknowledge the contributions of such identity research, our analysis engages the initial process of disrupting the policies and practices of reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities. We therefore take up the framework as it was originally conceptualized to include “structural analysis and political critique” (Guirdoz and Berger, interview with Crenshaw 2009: 70). In our investigation of reclassification for emergent bilinguals with disabilities, intersectionality “is not exclusively or even primarily preoccupied with categories, identities, and subjectivities” but attends to “political and structural inequalities” (Cho et al. 2013: 797).

Applying a political lens, intersectionality inquiry examines how the positioning of individuals and their embodied minority categories are tied up in policies, laws, and governing in ways that often constrict their opportunities (Cho et al. 2013). More simply, marginalization of intersectional individuals takes form through political avenues (Crenshaw 1991), and in this investigation, through special education and language education policies. Even when policies aim to improve conditions for a particular minority group, intersectional individuals within that minority group often experience unintended consequences because in the crafting of policies, their unique needs were not considered (Crenshaw 1991). Utilizing a wider lens, the structural dimension of intersectionality identifies the material effects of intersectional oppression (Grzanka 2014) and traces the origin of oppression to societal structures (Crenshaw 1991, 2014). That is, these structures are key to understanding the disadvantages intersectional individuals experience. Intersectionality scholars aver that educational systems are indeed societal structures in which intersectional oppression emerges (Anthias 2012; Dill 2009; Hill Collins and Bilge 2016).

Thus, in using an intersectionality lens, our analysis makes a novel contribution to emergent bilinguals with disabilities reclassification research by linking the immediate and pragmatic concerns around understanding the intended and unintended consequences of current policies and assessments with the often unacknowledged entrenched political and structural systems at play. With this conceptualization of reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities, we posit that improvements to reclassification procedures must also address the historic and systemic issues that intersectional individuals face in order to more equitably effect change. In our analysis, we analyze how structural and political inequalities are intertwined in the reclassification process, in which federal and state education policies reify testing practices that disadvantage students who are dually identified as having both disability and language learning needs. Our analysis explores how in two focal states with differential reclassification policies and practices, structures and policies meld in ways that elide the needs of emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

The policy context of reclassification criteria

The convergence of interacting policies and stakeholders requires a nuanced approach to conceptualize and clarify policies around reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Language planning and policy researchers have analyzed similarly complex issues by applying interpretive frameworks (cf, Yanow 2000) to investigate how discourse and action come together. Interpretive policy analysis is particularly important in accounting for the coexistence of competing policies necessary for a study of assessment policies in the United States. Importantly, assessments in many ways yield immediate power and influence in classrooms as pervasive devices (Shohamy 2011). In marrying intersectionality with interpretive policy analysis, our paper is uniquely designed to uncover the multiple factors impacting the treatment of emergent bilinguals with disabilities in relation to reclassification criteria that are encumbered by assessments.

Linquanti and Cook (2015) have emphasized the need for more transparency and systematicity in reclassification procedures for emergent bilinguals. To synthesize current reclassification policies, they developed a heuristic table categorizing states based on the number and type of criteria used to reclassify emergent bilinguals in the United States. For our analysis, we developed a continuum of reclassification criteria based on their information (see Figure 1). States and the District of Columbia ranged from using one to four types of criteria, with the majority (i.e., 30) using one standardized ELP test. Nine states used two criteria; seven used three criteria; and five states used four criteria. For ELP tests, 19 states used the overall composite score and 32 used the overall composite score and language domain (e.g., listening, reading, speaking, writing) scores. The additional criteria included academic content tests, teacher input/evaluation, and a catch-all “other” category (e.g., parent notification).
Figure 1

Range of reclassification criteria for emergent bilinguals

From these different categories, we selected two focal states from the divergent ends of the continuum: (1) using the ELP overall composite score only and (2) using the English proficiency composite and domain scores with the three additional criteria. There were eleven states in the former and four in the latter categories. Within each, we identified the percentage of emergent bilinguals in K-12 public schools comparing NCES (2013–2014) and Migration Policy Institute (2014–2015) data, and selected the two states with the highest percentage of emergent bilinguals (see Figure 2). At the narrow end of the continuum, New Mexico had the highest percentage with 15.3% emergent bilinguals (NCES 2014). At the broadest end of the continuum, California had the highest percentage of emergent bilinguals with 24.5% (NCES 2014).
Figure 2

Reclassification criteria of focal states

In choosing the policy source documents for analysis, we surveyed federal and state published materials (e.g., policies, handbooks, guidelines) as well as manuals and white papers publicly available from preidentified test developers. The information from these materials was selected based on the reclassification criteria listed for New Mexico and California by Linquanti and Cook (2015), and these criteria were confirmed through our survey of state policies and materials. All of these documents were analyzed specifically in relation to reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities, with an emphasis on the testing procedures or recommendations for this population. During the collection and analysis of these source documents, additional relevant materials (e.g., materials specific to individual school districts within the states) were also included. All materials were then examined based on the conceptual framework of political and structural dimensions of intersectionality through interpretive policy analysis. Below are the emerging understandings of the reclassification criteria for emergent bilinguals with disabilities in New Mexico and California.

Political and structural dimensions of reclassification

In what follows, we examine how the intersectionality of policies (e.g., education, assessment) inform reclassification processes for emergent bilinguals with identified disabilities in New Mexico and California. In delineating these findings, we illuminate how these policies and practices marginalize emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, the Public Education Department includes a Language and Culture Bureau, formerly known as the Bilingual Multicultural Education Bureau (2016) that also focuses specifically on emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Enrollment data from October 1, 2013 present a broad context of this group of learners. Emergent bilinguals with disabilities (n = 10,401) are 3.1% of students enrolled in New Mexico schools (n = 339,219), 19.9% of all emergent bilinguals (n = 52,220), and 24.2% of students with IEPs (n = 42,936). They report an 8.8% disproportionate overrepresentation of emergent bilinguals in special education (New Mexico Public Education Department n.d.4). In contrast, information about reclassification criteria for emergent bilinguals with disabilities is scant. The procedures and criteria for reclassifying emergent bilinguals with disabilities, therefore, need to be fused together using information from different political lens, using (1) state policies about reclassification of emergent bilinguals and (2) ELP test manual guidelines from the WIDA ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 exam.

New Mexico represents the most narrow end of the spectrum in terms of criteria for reclassification: a composite ELP score, which is explicitly part of state policies (New Mexico Public Education Department 2009, Standard 12). The score necessary to exit services is set by New Mexico Department of Education: composite score of a 5.0 + or higher on the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 ELP assessment (Bilingual Multicultural Education Bureau 2016). The required score is listed within state documents without context explaining the proficiency scale related to a composite 5.0 score. To understand the score used for reclassification, our analysis turns to the guidelines from the ELP developer: WIDA Consortium.

WIDA Consortium is the largest ELP testing consortium in the United States. Its ELP assessments are currently in use in 37 states and the District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Education, and territories of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands (WIDA n.d.c). The ELP assessment ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 is given annually to consortium-member emergent bilinguals in grades Kindergarten to 12 in the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. WIDA provides descriptions of what type of information these scores can provide, suggested uses, and limitations or caveats to keep in mind. Although one suggested use is to provide “information to help determine program eligibility” (WIDA 2017: 12), the test developers also caution “[s]cores provide only one source of data and should be used in conjunction with other data sources when making decisions about instruction, assessment and services” (p. 12). Yet, New Mexico uses the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 as the sole determinant for reclassification, marking an incongruence between assessment guidelines and state policies.

State resources direct teachers and administrators to the WIDA Consortium guidelines and procedures for administering the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 assessment with emergent bilinguals with disabilities (New Mexico Public Education Department 2014). WIDA (2015) offers procedures to ensure fairness in general: accessibility options and test administration procedures for all students, and for emergent bilinguals with disabilities specifically, accommodations. Accommodations are only available to emergent bilinguals with IEPs. Accommodations are placed in four categories: presentation (e.g., repeat item audio, read aloud), response (e.g., scribed response, response using a braille notetaker), setting (e.g., outside the school building), and extended time. Some accommodations, such as reading test items aloud, are not permitted on parts of the test where that specific skill is being measured (i.e., the reading portion). All bilingual options (e.g., translated dictionaries, response in a language other than English, translated directions) are explicitly banned from ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 accommodations (WIDA 2015).5 For 1–3% of emergent bilinguals with significant disabilities, WIDA has created the Alternate ACCESS for ELLs (WIDA n.d.d). There are four criteria listed in WIDA’s participation guidelines, clarifying that (1) the learner is indeed classified as an emergent bilingual, (2) the learner’s disability aligns with IDEA’s criteria for a significant disability, (3) extensive individualized instruction is used in the classroom, and (4) the learner is also using alternate assessments or modified achievement standards for content area annual assessments (WIDA n.d.b). In New Mexico, scores from the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 with accommodations or the Alternate ACCESS for ELLs, therefore, are the only criteria used to reclassify emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

The consequences attached to the use of the scores from the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 have significant impact on the educational trajectories of emergent bilinguals and contradict federal guidelines. Reclassification in New Mexico is an irreversible decision. Bolded in the original text, the Bilingual Multicultural Education Bureau (2016) explains that “[o]nce a student has been reclassified (become R-FEP), he or she must not be moved back to EL status for any reason” (p. 11). This inflexibility is at odds with federal guidelines that recommend re-testing if emergent bilinguals are not progressing as expected academically. Specifically, it contradicts the U.S. Department of Education (2016) stipulation that “[i]n no case should re-testing of an exited student’s ELP be prohibited” (p. 2).

As demonstrated, New Mexico’s existing policies for reclassifications of emergent bilinguals with disabilities are largely reliant on guidance from WIDA, which is then adopted as the de facto policy within the state. Yet, New Mexico also conflicts with WIDA guidelines that call for additional criteria for reclassification decisions for emergent bilinguals in general. Educational organizations, such as the CCSSO, also question the validity of using ELP assessments as the lone criterion for reclassifying emergent bilinguals with disabilities: “Practitioners should not have to rely solely on the results of summative ELP assessments normed on students who do not represent the diverse population encompassed under the term ‘ELLs with disabilities’” (Park et al. 2016: 20). Their stance highlights two significant concerns: (1) the validity issues of testing emergent bilinguals with disabilities when assessments are not developed for this population and (2) the heterogeneity represented among emergent bilinguals with disabilities, which makes developing an assessment with valid score inferences all the more challenging. In the most recent version of the test, WIDA completed standard setting this version, “raising the bar for language proficiency” (para. 1). Although this addresses the critiques that the previous version was too easy and therefore prematurely reclassified emergent bilinguals (Kafka 2015), these revisions—which are expected to result in lower scores and fewer reclassifications—were done without mention of the impact on emergent bilinguals with disabilities.


In contrast to the singular criterion from New Mexico, California has multiple components to the criteria for reclassification of emergent bilinguals: (1) ELP assessment language domain scores, (2) teacher agreement/input, (3) parental approval, and (4) “comparison of the performance of the pupil in basic skills against an empirically established range of performance in basic skills based upon the performance of English proficient pupils of the same age” (California Education Code, Title 1, Division 1, Part 1, Chapter 3, Article 3.5, Section 313.f.1-4). There are clear policies and recommendations about the use of the ELP assessment, the California English Language Development Test (CELDT 2016), for emergent bilinguals and emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

According to the California Department of Education, 17,157 emergent bilinguals with disabilities were tested using the CELDT during the 2015–2016 academic year. The test has a 5-level scale: beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced, and advanced. 54% of those tested scored at the beginning proficiency level; 23% scored early intermediate; 16% scored intermediate; 5% scored early advanced, and 1% scored advanced. Although most emergent bilinguals tend to score in the beginning–intermediate range, emergent bilinguals with disabilities’ scores cluster more so at the lowest ends of the proficiency scales (CELDT Reporting Home 2016). The scoring trends indicate a potentially insurmountable barrier for reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities, when such a small proportion tend towards the advanced proficiency levels.

Test accommodations are available on the CELDT for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Similar to the WIDA ACCESS for ELLs 2.0, the CELDT allows for test variations for all emergent bilinguals, and specific accommodations for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Accommodations include administering the test at a time of day more beneficial for emergent bilinguals, Braille transcriptions, and large-print versions of the test. For emergent bilinguals with significant disabilities, districts such as Los Angeles Schools choose the alternative assessments or assessment methods, such as the Low-Verbal/Non-Verbal Communication Observation Matrix (2007). Yet, these test scores are used to make reclassification decisions for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. These policies, like in New Mexico, do not critically engage validity issues of using test accommodations with emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Consequently, Park et al. (2016) call for more explicit guidance concerning accommodation implementation, which can be quite divergent from accommodation policy guidelines.

In California, one non-ELP test is also required. These tests are meant to provide additional evidence to aid in reclassification decisions. In most cases, this is an English literacy exam such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) or Scholastic Reading Inventory. Using these tests to make inferences about the learning of emergent bilinguals or students with disabilities is generally problematic, as neither test provides publicly available data or information about test design or test use for either population. Thus, it follows that for emergent bilinguals with disabilities, no specific test information is available. Any test accommodation recommendations for these tests then falls under the purview of state education policies.

In addition to standardized test scores, teacher evaluations or grades in specified courses and parental approval are the remaining two criteria. Grades in various English language arts classes are identified for reclassification decisions. Parental approval comes in the form of translated letters sent home, informing parents of reclassification. These criteria of the reclassification process are more open to interpretation, which has the possibility to allow more agency in the decision-making process, but could also reinforce or reveal biases. For example, the importance placed on a single grade by a single teacher brings into question whether or not the teacher understands the implications of such a grade, and previous teacher training in working with emergent bilinguals with disabilities.

At the state level, the CELDT (2016) guidelines provide suggestions for reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities specifically. For the first criterion, the requirement of using an objective ELP is clarified as being inclusive of tests other than the CELDT. The recommendations explain how an IEP team can make the decision to use an alternative or modified test version. Although these tests do not meet accountability requirements in federal policy for comparable, objective measures, these scores for alternative or modified assessments can be used in conjunction with the other three criteria to inform reclassification decisions.

The descriptions of criteria two, three, and four are less specific in the CELDT (2016) guidelines. Criteria two and three are each one sentence long, specifying the importance of teacher evaluations and parental involvement in relation to IEP planning and implementation. For criterion four about measurements of academic achievement, the suggestions are similar to those for the ELP tests, with a call to use the existing California tests of basic skills, and deferring to the IEP team to make any decisions about alternative or modified assessments. Across these guidelines is an overarching theme that the IEP team would be responsible for interpreting these reclassification criteria. It is also not clear within these policies if certain criteria are given more weight than others in the reclassification process. Therefore, although California uses four main criteria for reclassification, the prevalence of testing within the reclassification process remains. Looking to more specific guidance for interpreting these criteria at the district level provides information about the IEP team and reclassification decision-making process.

Individual school districts in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco offer specific information for reclassification criteria for emergent bilinguals. The Individualized Reclassification (IR) option in San Francisco represents a documented procedure that relies on the judgment of educational professionals (San Francisco Unified School District [SFUSD] n.d.). The rationale for the policy acknowledges the limitations of current assessment methods in making such distinctions for the emergent bilingual with disabilities population and that disabilities may prevent the learner from meeting standard reclassification criteria. A team of educators in special education leads the decision-making process for IR. They may consider the CELDT scores but ultimately use performance in other basic skills to compare the emergent bilinguals’ achievement with English-proficient peers with similar disabilities (SFUSD n.d.). If the learner performs comparatively to her peers, the educator team can decide that the lack of meeting reclassification criteria is due to disability and not English language proficiency. The team then sends their recommendation to begin the formal process of reclassification.

Placing a team of special education educators in the main agentive role in reclassification presents new challenges for language educators of emergent bilinguals with and without disabilities, to say the least, and echoes a larger hierarchy in the education of emergent bilinguals with disabilities wherein language services and the voices of language educators often get erased (Kangas 2014). Yet, at the same time, policies that rely on the perspectives of educators and actively question testing practices promote a way forward that is less reliant on assessments.


The analysis of emergent bilingual reclassification criteria in both California and New Mexico examined two ends of the spectrum. At one end, New Mexico has a sole measure for reclassification for all emergent bilinguals, and the state remains largely silent on the unique needs of emergent bilinguals with disabilities. In fact, New Mexico’s use of a single composite score on the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 assessment systematically disadvantages emergent bilinguals with disabilities, placing high stakes on an assessment for which they often receive inadequate accommodations intended for students with disabilities—not language learners with disabilities (Abedi 2010). In short, they are assessed in ways that fail to acknowledge their disabilities. Here, we want to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the emergent bilingual with disabilities population, knowing that reclassification processes may more profoundly affect emergent bilinguals with cognitive disabilities. At the other end of the continuum is California, utilizing a multiple-measures approach that to some extent acknowledges emergent bilingual with disabilities as a distinct subgroup. Yet, regardless of the number and scope of reclassification criteria, these policies have the unintended consequence of disadvantaging students at the intersection of language proficiency and disability by “conflat[ing] or ignor[ing] intragroup differences” (Crenshaw 1991: 1242) among both emergent bilinguals and students with disabilities. For example, in California, CELDT provides specific accommodations for emergent bilinguals with disabilities; however, for the other three reclassification criteria, the guidance prioritizes the IEP team to make reclassification decisions, leaving districts and schools to construct their own policies with uncertainty (Park et al. 2016). With these policies and practices informing reclassification, one critical unintended consequence for students at the intersection of language and disabilities emerges: it is unlikely emergent bilinguals with disabilities can or will be deemed proficient in English. This comports with recent statistical analyses that found emergent bilinguals with disabilities experience lower reclassification rates (Burke et al. 2016; Umansky et al. 2017). The ramifications of improbable—or at best, delayed—reclassification are twofold: disproportionate representation of (1) L-TELs among emergent bilinguals with disabilities and (2) emergent bilinguals in special education.

First, research has begun to identify an overlap between L-TELs and emergent bilinguals with disabilities (Burke et al. 2016; Kim and García 2014; Thompson 2015a, b). We argue that the current assessment-driven policies that delay or prevent reclassification contribute to the prevalence of emergent bilinguals with disabilities within the L-TEL population in U.S. schools. Once an L-TEL, the systemic disadvantages in schools become acute. L-TELs often have restricted access to rigorous general education curricula (Olsen 2014; Thompson 2015a; Umansky and Reardon 2014) and in receiving support for their emerging English proficiency (Menken et al. 2012; Olsen 2014). Concomitantly, these students are prone to higher rates of dropping out and limited opportunity in attending post-secondary education (U.S. Department of Education 2016; Olsen 2014). Such restricted opportunities tied to the intersection of minority social categories—disability and language background—are the hallmarks of structural intersectionality: the lives of individuals are concretely and materially affected in ways that cause substantial disadvantage (Crenshaw 1991; Grzanka 2014; Yuval-Davis 2009). In this way, the structural and political nature move from unintended consequences to effects functioning as intersectional oppression; state policies and limited learning opportunities in schools create additional educational obstacles for emergent bilinguals with disabilities precisely because of the intersecting minority social categories these students embody.

Second, literature has focused on erroneous identification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities as the contributing factor of overrepresentation in special education (Abedi 2006; Klingner et al. 2005; National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017; Sullivan 2011), citing how assessment practices can conflate language learning with a disability (Abedi 2010; Collier 2011; Klingner and Eppollito 2014). But, we argue that reclassification also contributes to disproportional representation of emergent bilinguals in special education, especially in secondary grades. Umansky et al.’s (2017) reclassification bottleneck lends credence to this claim, as emergent bilinguals with disabilities are unable to meet exit criteria and thus are disproportionately represented in special education in secondary grades. Our interpretive policy analysis points to a similar conclusion: when emergent bilinguals have disabilities that impact their cognition (e.g., learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, etc.), the likelihood of their reclassification is negligible given the current misaligned assessments practices and policies. Over time, disproportionate representation of these students in special education can occur as EL classification (i.e., identification) and reclassification rates fail to balance out. There is an accumulating effect: Each year, more emergent bilinguals are identified with cognitive disabilities, yet few are able to be reclassified (see Figure 3). This contended pattern also comports with Artiles et al. (2005) finding of overrepresentation of emergent bilinguals with intellectual and learning disabilities in secondary grades.
Figure 3

Contribution of delayed reclassification to overrepresentation of emergent bilinguals with disabilities

If emergent bilinguals are overrepresented in special education, it is often assumed that too many were inaccurately identified with a disability (i.e., a wrong label has been assigned to them). In the same way, overrepresentation can occur through reclassification processes wherein emergent bilinguals cannot “lose” the EL label even if they are, in fact, proficient. That is, they cannot shift institutional status from ELs with disabilities to students with disabilities and thus, they remain dually identified. Such overrepresentation in special education demonstrates how assessment practices driven by federal and state policies are a manifestation of an intertwined structural and political marginalization experienced by emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Although reclassification policies are arguably intended to promote emergent bilinguals’ academic development, they exacerbate the obstacles they already experience by creating yet another hurdle in their education. Without the intersection of language and disability in mind, policies intended for good, ironically create unintended additional barriers (Crenshaw 1991) for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Significantly, reclassification is a part of a larger patterned oppression wherein policies and school structures marginalize emergent bilinguals with disabilities (see Kangas 2014, 2018).

With the potential consequences of overrepresentation of emergent bilinguals with disabilities among L-TELs and of emergent bilinguals in special education, current reclassification policies need amending; an assessment-laden approach constrains opportunities for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Alternatively, stripping assessments from reclassification can leave emergent bilinguals with and without disabilities subject to inconsistent criteria. Thus, we advocate reclassification criteria that include multiple indicators of the students’ language learning as is the current practice in California; yet these criteria these should extend beyond student data alone to include the context around the students, such as the English language development services and supports for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Examining students’ contexts is critical given the common practice of schools eliminating particular services, especially those for English language development, for emergent bilinguals with disabilities (Kangas 2014, 2017, 2018, U.S. Departments of Justice & Education 2015). Further, we advocate an approach to reclassification that relies on interdisciplinary teams of education professionals, with parents/guardians and learners, working together to support emergent bilinguals and their educational needs. In their decision-making, these teams must be supplied with evidence-based research about the ways in which reclassification impacts access to educational opportunities. By drawing on their collective knowledge—of the student, language, disability—and knowing the implications of reclassification from political and structural standpoints, these teams can wedge open, not foreclose, educational opportunities for emergent bilinguals with disabilities by developing a more accurate portrait of the students’ academic and language capabilities. To enact this, these teams need to be able to interpret multiple indicators plus contextual conditions and to evaluate which of these criteria can best contribute to making an informed decision for reclassification.


Across their academic experiences, emergent bilinguals with disabilities are the recipients of macro and de facto policies that contribute to disadvantageous historical and systemic processes. Current policies aim for consistency in implementation, but in the process, lump emergent bilinguals together as a homogeneous population, ignoring how disability fundamentally changes what is considered fair and equitable. This investigation was the first interpretive policy analysis to problematize reclassification policies for a particular subgroup of emergent bilinguals—those with disabilities. We envision this study as an initial, critical step in highlighting the substantial academic disadvantages experienced by emergent bilinguals with disabilities in K-12 education. Thus, we call upon scholars to investigate equity issues in the education emergent bilinguals, especially those issues left unanswered in our investigation, such as the negotiation of reclassification of emergent bilinguals with disabilities, examining which stakeholders play prominent roles in the process. Such inquiry will help raise awareness of the pressing needs of emergent bilinguals with disabilities in reclassification and ensure that they have the same educational opportunities as their peers.


  1. 1.

    Within these discussions of reclassification is the problematic terminology used to label these learners. EL, L-TEL, and R-FEP can perpetuate deficit views of learners. We view EL status and reclassification of such status as additionally complex in part because of the limitations of terminology that erases learners’ bilingual assets. When quoting policies or literature we use EL, but throughout our paper we will refer to these learners as emergent bilinguals (e.g., García, 2009) to foreground learners’ language resources.

  2. 2.

    In accordance with IDEA (1975), related services are supports that allow students with disabilities to benefit from their special education services, including but are not limited to, speech–language therapy, physical and occupational therapy, health/nursing services, and counseling services.

  3. 3.

    In the United States, Title I is a federal program that provides financial assistance to schools serving students with educational disadvantages (e.g., students living in poverty, students with disabilities, ELs, Native American students, etc.).

  4. 4.

    Since the writing of this paper this information has been removed from their website.

  5. 5.

    WIDA’s position is noteworthy in that they acknowledge that they have considered the possibility of using bilingual supports for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Calls to include multilingual approaches (Otheguy et al. 2015; Shohamy 2011) and recent evidence supporting multilingual approaches in classroom language assessment (Schissel et al. 2018) may present a promising new direction in language proficiency assessments for emergent bilinguals with disabilities.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.TESOLUniversity of North Carolina at GreensboroGreensboroUSA
  2. 2.College of EducationLehigh UniversityBethlehemUSA

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