April 5, 2004
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
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
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
"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
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,"
To e-mail Diane D'Amico at The Press: DDamico@pressofac.com