NCEO Brief

June 2014
Number 9

State Assessment Decision-making Processes for ELLs with Disabilities

Appropriately including English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities in state accountability assessments can be challenging for many state departments of education. Making informed and appropriate assessment decisions has the potential to improve the validity of state assessment results for this population of students.1

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) has compiled information and evidence about recommended practices for assessment decision making that meets the specific needs of ELLs with disabilities. Several sources of data2 provide information that can be used to strengthen decision-making processes at the state, district, and school levels. In addition, information is included about supports that educators have requested to make the best possible decisions for these students.

The purpose of this Brief is to describe existing evidence that addresses the following questions related to assessment decision making:

  • Are there any required assessment decision-making processes for ELLs with disabilities?
  • What do experts recommend about assessment decision making for ELLs with disabilities?
  • What resources should be available to guide assessment decision making?
  • How can the creation of standards-based IEPs improve decision making?
  • Who should be included in the decision-making team?

Are there any required assessment decision-making processes for ELLs with disabilities?

Federal laws require that any student served in special education have an individualized education program (IEP). The IEP must indicate how the student will participate in assessments and accommodations to be used. In the development of an IEP for an ELL, the IEP team must consider the child's language needs.3

ELLs do not have the same kind of mandate at the federal level, but some individual states and districts do require schools to create an individualized plan for ELLs. These plans, sometimes referred to as Individualized Language Learner Plans (ILLPs), describe how the school will support the student's language development.4 If both types of plans are created for an individual student, it is important to make sure they intersect.

What do experts recommend about assessment decision making for ELLs with disabilities?

Assessment decision making encompasses both decisions about which tests students will take and what accommodations they will use. Special education, English language development (ELD), and assessment experts who participated in a consensus-building process to generate principles and guidelines for assessing ELLs with disabilities identified two principles, with guidelines, on effective assessment decisions (see Sidebar).5 The two principles and their guidelines highlight the importance of having a diverse decision-making team that represents all of an individual student's educational experiences, and making sure the team is well-informed about the testing options that are available to the student.

What resources should be available to guide assessment decision making?

The Improving the Validity of Assessment Results for English Language Learners with Disabilities (IVARED) project invited educators in five states to participate in focus groups about assessment decision making for ELLs with disabilities.6 Focus group participants identified the importance of well-written IEPs and clear state policy documents (e.g., test participation guidelines, lists of allowable accommodations) in making informed assessment decisions for these students.

Still, many focus group participants indicated that they wanted specific policy guidance on testing ELLs with disabilities.

"Honestly we don't have any policies or procedures in place specifically relating to ELLs with disabilities and testing. Thus has simply been a case-by-case looking at the student, ability level and deciding on testing."

The case-by-case approach, combined with a lack of clarity about how existing policies should be interpreted for ELLs with disabilities, may contribute to decision-maker confusion. For example, one teacher described a policy on exiting ELLs and ELLs with disabilities from language support programming based on their state test scores and then added:

"This is not common knowledge among teachers. We have not had a handbook in 10 years that clearly articulates policy or what is mandated by law."

The educators in the focus groups indicated that another important resource on which they relied for assessment decision making was a well-written IEP with specific information on a student's assessment needs. Focus group participants noted that, for a variety of reasons, IEPs sometimes did not reflect specific, up-to-date information on the student's actual assessment needs. They also indicated that some IEPs may be based primarily on assessment policies for special education students in general, and as a result, they may not adequately reflect students' language learning needs.

How can the creation of standards-based IEPs improve assessment decision making?

Ten years ago a national survey of districts serving ELLs found that instructional programs for ELLs with disabilities were not aligned with state content or performance standards to the same degree as programs for special education students overall.7 The results of the IVARED focus groups indicated that this may still be an issue. The creation of standards-based IEPs is an important way to link an individual student's needs to the standards-based, grade-level curriculum. By specifying the ways in which a student with a disability is expected to make progress in the general curriculum, standards-based IEPs can raise teacher expectations and ensure that the student has the opportunity to learn material that will be found on accountability assessments.8

Standards-based IEPs also specify ways that educators will monitor whether a student is making progress in the curriculum.9 Furthermore, creation of a standards-based IEP can enhance the collaboration of a multi-disciplinary IEP team by promoting a common way of communicating about a student's needs and strengthening the assessment decisions that team makes. For these reasons, standards-based IEPs are increasingly referenced as best practice in state department of education trainings and research literature.10

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education recommends a seven-step process for developing standards-based IEPs (see Footnote 9). For ELLs with disabilities, that list has been modified to incorporate attention to a student's second language development needs:11

  1. Examine grade-level content standards and English language development standards to get an understanding of what students should know and be able to do.
  2. Use classroom and individual student data to determine a student's performance on grade-level standards.
  3. Determine the student's current performance level in content and academic English proficiency.
  4. Create annual measurable goals aligned with content and English language proficiency standards.
  5. Assess, monitor, and report progress using a variety of types of information collected by all of the student's teachers and including state assessment scores.
  6. Identify special instructional accommodations and modifications needed to support the student in meaningful participation in the grade-level general education curriculum.
  7. Determine the most appropriate assessment options for content and English proficiency assessments. Consider the available options for participating in tests as well as the available accommodations on those tests.

Examples of standards-based IEPs for fluent-English speaking students with disabilities can be found on state department of education websites. For ELLs with disabilities, it is important to address English proficiency when determining appropriate accommodations and planning goals for both content areas and English language development.

Who should be included in the assessment decision-making team?

IVARED focus groups showed that in some schools and districts, the ELD and special education departments have separate assessment decision-making processes for English proficiency and content assessments. However, most assessment decisions for ELLs with disabilities appear to be made as part of a student's IEP process (see Footnote 6). The IEP team, therefore, may become the assessment decision-making team. Federal law requires that an IEP team include a number of professional roles, but ESL or bilingual education teachers are not specifically listed.12

It is extremely difficult to create an IEP that addresses all of the needs of ELLs with disabilities if the people who can best address their language learning processes are not in attendance.13 During IVARED focus groups (see Footnote 6), one participant came to the realization that his or her school had not been addressing students' language needs on the IEP because ESL teachers had not been included in writing it:

"If a student is required to take the [state English proficiency assessment], we often will neglect to put accommodations in the IEP for this, because the representative from the ELL department is usually not part of that student's IEP team. Now that I am writing this, I feel that this is the wrong way of going about doing what is best for providing for my students, who are also ELL!"

A finding of the focus groups was that on the most effective teams, language development teachers were either invited to attend IEP meetings or they provided written or oral input that contributed to the discussion. Other individuals who were important to include on an IEP team for an ELL with a disability were native language interpreters to support communication with parents.14

Educators in the focus groups often discussed the topic of unequal participation in IEP teams, particularly when making assessment decisions, because some members knew less about the students' needs than others. Focus group participants also stressed that it is equally important to provide parents or guardians with information about state assessments and the available assessment options so they feel empowered to make informed choices for their child. To effectively include parents on the IEP team, teachers must be trained in working with linguistically and culturally diverse parents and must understand how the cultural background of the parents or guardians relates to their academic goals for the child.15 Including parents in decision making may also mean explaining about the IEP process as well as about aspects of instruction and assessment relevant to the decision-making process.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is still a great deal of confusion in the field about interpreting existing policies for ELLs with disabilities. It is challenging to create an effective assessment decision-making team that represents educators who know all the needs of an ELL with a disability. Educators report that they are using the policies and materials available, but those policies may not be specific to ELLs with disabilities.

NCEO recommends that policymakers provide educators with guidance and support in six key areas:

  1. Unifying separate decision-making teams in ELD and special education so that they share information about content and English language proficiency testing with each other.
  2. Creating collaborative multi-disciplinary IEP teams that include ELD teachers and parents as equal partners in assessment decision making.
  3. Educating parents of ELLs with disabilities about the IEP process generally, and about state assessment decision making in particular.
  4. Supporting special educators in writing and updating standards-based IEPs that clearly link content and language instruction to grade-level standards that are assessed.
  5. Providing regular professional development to all teachers on topics such as working with ELLs with disabilities and their parents, and choosing appropriate assessment accommodations.
  6. Creating written assessment policy documents that specifically address ELLs with disabilities.


1Albus & Thurlow (2007); Altman, Lazarus, Thurlow, Quenemoen, Cuthbert, & Cormier (2008).
2Data sources for this Brief include: (a) Delphi study results on recommended assessment practices from special education, ELL, and assessment experts; (b) data from teacher and administrator focus groups conducted in 2012; and (c) surveys of states in 2006-07.
3Karger, J. (2013).
4Individual states and school districts may post templates for such plans online. For example, see the following links from the Education Service Center, Region 20 in Texas and the Dekalb County Schools in Georgia:
5Thurlow, Liu, Ward, & Christensen (2013).
6Liu, Goldstone, Thurlow, Ward, Hatten, & Christensen (2013).
7Zehler, Fleischman, Hopstock, Pendzick, & Stephenson, (2003).
8Thompson, Thurlow, Quenemoen, Esler, & Whetstone (2001).
9Holbrook (2007).
10Rudebusch (2012).
11Liu & Barrera (2013); Ortiz & Wilkinson (1989).
12Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004).
13Liu & Barrera (2013); Mueller, Singer, & Carranza (2006); Ortiz & Wilkinson (1989).
14Liu & Barrera (2013).
15Liu & Barrera (2013).


Albus, D. A., & Thurlow, M. L. (2007). English language learners with disabilities in state English language proficiency assessments: A review of state accommodation policies (Synthesis Report 66). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Altman, J. R., Lazarus, S. L., Thurlow, M. L., Quenemoen, R. F., Cuthbert, M., & Cormier, D. C. (2008). 2007 Survey of states: Activities, changes, and challenges for special education. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Barrera, M. (2013, Winter/Spring). United action for improving academic outcomes of English language learners with disabilities. IMPACT (Feature issue on educating K-12 English language learners with disabilities), 26(1), 26–27. Available at

Holbrook, M. D. (2007). A seven-step process to creating standards-based IEPs. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Project Forum.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act [IDEA] of 2004, P.L. 108-446, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.

Karger, J. (2013, Winter/Spring). The legal obligations of education systems to serve English language learners with disabilities. IMPACT (Feature issue on educating K-12 English language learners with disabilities), 26(1), 6-7. Available at

Liu, K., & Barrera, M. (2013). Providing leadership to meet the needs of ELLs with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 26(1), 31-42.

Liu, K. K., Goldstone, L. S., Thurlow, M. L. Ward, J. M., & Hatten, J., & Christensen, L. L. (2013). Voices from the field: Making state assessment decisions for English language learners with disabilities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Improving the Validity of Assessment Results for English Language Learners with Disabilities (IVARED).

Lo, L. (2013, Winter/Spring). English language learners with disabilities: What school professionals need to know and do. IMPACT (Feature issue on educating K-12 English language learners with disabilities), 26(1), 30. Available at

Mueller, T. G., Singer, G. H., & Carranza, F. D. (2006). Planning and language instruction practices for students with moderate to severe disabilities who are English language learners. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities (RPSD), 31(3), 242-254.

Ortiz, A., & Wilkinson, C. (1989). Adapting IEPs for limited English proficient students. Intervention in School and Clinic, 24(5), 555–568.

Rudebusch, J. (2012). From Common Core State Standards to standards-based IEPs: A brief tutorial. Perspectives on School-Based Issues, 13(1), 17–24.

Thompson, S. J., Thurlow, M. L., Quenemoen, R. F., Esler, A., & Whetstone, P. (2001). Addressing standards and assessments on state IEP forms (Synthesis Report 38). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M. L., Liu, K. K., Ward, J. M., & Christensen, L. L. (2013). Assessment principles and guidelines for ELLs with disabilities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Improving the Validity of Assessment Results for English Language Learners with Disabilities (IVARED).

Zehler, A., Fleischman, H., Hopstock, P., Stephenson, T., Pendzick, M., & Sapru, S. (2003). Descriptive study of services to limited English proficient students. Washington DC: Development Associates.


Ideas that Work logoNCEO Brief #9

June 2014

This Brief reflects many years of work by all NCEO staff. Contributors to the writing of this Brief were, listed alphabetically, Laurene Christensen, Linda Goldstone, Jim Hatten, Sheryl Lazarus, Kristin Liu, Vitaliy Shyyan, Martha Thurlow, and Yi-Chen Wu.

NCEO Co-Principal Investigators are Martha Thurlow and Sheryl Lazarus.

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

NCEO. (2014, June). State assessment decision-making processes for ELLs with disabilities (NCEO Brief #9). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

The Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326G110002) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but does not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Office within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. This document is available in alternative formats upon request.

Project Officer: David Egnor

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