April 5, 2004

Foreigners a special challenge for teachers
By DIANE D’AMICO Education Writer, (609) 272-7241

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - The child has been in America for less than a year. He struggles to learn English and his classwork is poor.

Is he just having difficulty learning a new language? Or does the child possibly have a more serious learning disability?

The sad answer is that too often school districts struggle to find out.

The result is either children with learning disabilities that are never diagnosed, or children with undeveloped language skills who windup being placed in special-education programs when all they need is more help learning English.

"There is a problem with both under-referrals and over-referrals (for special-education services)," said Peggy McArdle, associate chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The number of foreign-born children in American public schools is growing. The federal No Child Left Behind Law requires they also pass annual state tests.

Suddenly, children who in the past may have quietly nudged through school are expected to achieve at the same level as all other children.

More than 100 teachers statewide came to a Bilingual Special Education Conference hosted by the Southern Regional Institute at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey last week to hear about the latest research in diagnosing and teaching non-English speaking students with learning disabilities.

What they found is a field that is scrambling to make up for lost time.

"We have to be proactive now," said Joan Mele-McCarthy, a special assistant in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Teachers attending the conference said the limited data and programs for their students often frustrated them. McArdle said reports and programs are being compiled and should begin to be available in the fall.

In the meantime, school districts try to adapt existing diagnostic tests, which may underestimate a foreign child's intelligence because they are largely based on how a child uses and understands language.

Those doing the test may not speak the child's language, nor have the training in how to assess a limited-English student.

"It's frustrating fo you, and it's frustrating for us, too," McArdle said.

To e-mail Diane D'Amico at The Press: DDamico@pressofac.com