Addressing the Wicked Problem of English Learner Disproportionality by Examining Speech-Language Pathologists’ Beliefs: Applying Q Methodology to Special Education


The attribution of academic failure to an educational disability instead of a lack of English proficiency is one factor contributing to the disproportionate representation of English learners (ELs) in special education. As gatekeepers to special education, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) must ensure that ELs found eligible for special education under the category of Speech and Language Impairment are truly those with an impairment due to Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or another developmental disability, not children exhibiting differences from standard English use due to cultural or linguistic differences or lack of English proficiency. However, many SLPs’ ongoing reliance on invalid procedures to make a determination about an EL’s language learning ability makes their ability to make appropriate determinations of special education eligibility problematic. This exploratory study hypothesized that factor(s) besides the lack of knowledge or resources as previously documented may be presenting a barrier to the fidelity with which SLPs perform bilingual assessments. This study utilized Q methodology, a unique gestalt procedure whose aim is to reveal how configurations of themes are interconnected among a group of participants. A set of California school-based SLPs sorted a set of subjective statements about linguistic diversity, bilingualism, ELs’ learning potential, and the use of EL language assessment best practices. Sorts were intercorrelated and revealed 4 distinct profiles defined by their beliefs and attitudes. While areas of consensus among the 4 profiles were discovered, the profiles diverged in their beliefs about the importance and value of using EL assessment best practices, their perceptions of social pressure to utilize these best practices, their perceptions of ELs situated in either strengths-based or deficit thinking, and their perceptions of the degree of control they have over using EL assessment best practices. Results shed new light on the association of SLPs’ assessment practices with the issue of EL disproportionality and suggest ways to enhance the ability of pre-service educators, professional development providers, and school administrators to create targeted remedies for the “wicked” problem of EL disproportionality in special education

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This paper was published in University of Redlands.

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