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IQ tests may not be an effective means of identifying ESL students with learning disabilities due to inherent cultural biases of the tests.
Joe Sun (pseudonym) immigrated from Hong Kong with his family when he was 11 years old. He struggled with school and failed nearly all of his classes. He had difficulty learning both English and the material presented in his academic classes. He received some English as a Second Language (ESL) help, but after 3 years of continued failure he was referred for assessment. It was found that Joe could not define words such as thief or brave, words that should be easy for most English-speaking students his age. When asked, he was unable to read easy words such as rug, with, stove, ground, and airplane. He read even as eve, finger as fighter, size as sat, felt as fit, and lame as lem. He was asked to read pseudowords, but he did so with great difficulty: ift was ept, Nan was ang, Chad was chand, and ap was aip. When asked, he spelled correct as coright, him as her, and must as mucs. He had great difficulty repeating two-syllable nonwords and could not delete initial and final phonemes. However, he did have outstanding visual-spatial skills.
The teachers in Joe's school were faced with a difficult and perplexing question, "Was Joe failing to learn because he was learning English as a second language (ESL), or was he learning disabled?" It is often difficult to determine which individuals are learning disabled when they are native speakers of a language. However, the task is considerably more complex when they are second language (L2) learners.
There are students at all levels, kindergarten to university, who have difficulty learning. Indeed, the number of school-age students identified as learning disabled in the U.S. rose from 797,000 in 1976-1977 to 2,317,000 in 1993-1994 (Kavale & Forness, 1998). Many individuals find learning difficult or impossible for reasons that are not always clear to teachers. In many cases they may have some type of learning disability. That is, they may have significant difficulty in acquiring reading, spelling, writing, or mathematical skills. The U.S. National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2000) published an expanded definition of learning disabilities first developed in 1994:
Learning disabilities ... [refer] to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist ... but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur ... with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance), or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, inappropriate or insufficient instruction), they are not the result of [them]. (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 2000)
Learning disabilities are not always outwardly visible; they must often be inferred. To determine whether an individual has a learning disability, school personnel are usually required by policy to administer an intelligence test (e.g., see Kavale & Forness, 1998). A student may be diagnosed as having a reading disability if there is a large and significant discrepancy between an IQ test score and reading achievement. The United States Department of Education (1977) established rules and regulations for detecting learning disabilities.
A specific learning disability may be found if (1) the child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability when provided with appropriate educational experiences, and (2) the child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more areas relating to communication skills and mathematical abilities. (p. 65083)
There are a number of different discrepancy-based models of disability involving IQ scores in use, and it has been argued for some time that they should be replaced by approaches based on grounded theories of learning (Willson, 1987). However, this discrepancy definition of learning disability continues to shape policy in many jurisdictions, including the United States (cf., Kavale & Forness, 1998), the United Kingdom (cf., United Kingdom Department for Education and Employment, 2000), and Canada (cf., British Columbia Ministry of Education, 1999). We have concerns about the use of intelligence tests to determine who is reading disabled and who is not. We are particularly concerned when the students speak a first (L1) or primary language other than English, are from backgrounds that are culturally different from the mainstream, or are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. We are convinced that these students are penalized because of the use of IQ tests. Indeed, we are certain that some students who should be identified as learning disabled are not, and some who are identified should not be. We believe that the use of IQ testing and the discrepancy concept is invalid and harmful, and is particularly destructive for those students who differ linguistically and culturally from the "norm." We agree with Strickland (1995) that students with a record of school failure, classified with labels ranging from "learning disabled" to "educably mentally retarded," are …