From False-Positives to Advocacy: Shifting Deficit Perspectives in the Identification of English Learners

February 3, 2022

Lea este artículo en español.

For about six years in the 1990s, part of my job as a bilingual resource specialist was to meet with families whose children had been identified as English learners (EL). As part of these meetings, I would explain services students could access, learning supports they could receive, and other rights to which they were entitled. I often learned, during these meetings, that families needed help navigating school culture, their own community and, in some cases, even getting food or finding a place to live.

Once in a while, I was surprised to learn that some of the families only spoke English at home. Even though some of these students qualified for EL services, their needs, as well as those of their families, were different. These students entered the EL system because their families used Spanish during visits to their abuelito or because they were learning Hebrew at their synagogue. In other words, their bi/multilingual experiences were being translated into a need for language services.

A Pennsylvania state education leader, who I will call Sharon, described similar situations in her state and labeled them as “false positives.” Federal guidelines require that states give all students who enter public school a home language survey that asks what languages are spoken at home. Sharon noted that in the past, her school did “the home language survey and then automatically every child that indicated another language was tested.” She argued that the reason that this process sometimes led to false positives was the fact that the ways in which some of these students were using languages other than English was “not as fundamental a home language as using it in the home as a method of communication.” When these students then took the English proficiency screener, the results indicated eligibility. Sharon posited that the reason for these false positives was that the screener “is a difficult test.”

Sharon’s experience exemplifies how, in the last couple of decades, educational policy has framed language testing through the lens of academic language. One way policy translates into practice is that language proficiency tests have increased in both difficulty and focus on technical and specialized uses of language resulting in false positives. Along with these shifts in practice around screening and testing, there are some important assumptions in the discussion of false positives that we need to reflect on as educators:

  1. Deficit perspectives on students and their use of language. The term false positives is used in the medical field to describe the misidentification of a disease in someone who does not have the disease. Using this terminology when discussing the education of bi/multilingual students translates into comparing not speaking English to a disease that needs to be treated. If English is the “healthy” language in schools, this assumption also negates students’ language and cultural experiences as valid tools for learning. Just as important is that these views assume bilingualism in students automatically means that they may not be proficient in English.
  2. Deficit perspectives on services received through the federal designation of English learner. If not speaking English is seen as a disease, what follows is that it needs to be treated. One problem of a false positive in medical terms is that the patient could receive treatment that is not appropriate and even harmful. By analogy, services provided to students mis-identified as English learners would be inappropriate and potentially harmful to them. At the same time, this deficit perspective prevents schools from thinking of services for bi/multilingual students in a more comprehensive way. It frames services as remedial, leaving behind bi/multilingual students who may benefit from academic supports but who are not eligible through the existing practices for identification of EL status. Nonetheless, language services should affirm, building on and extending the language resources that all students bring into the classroom.

In brief, deficit perspectives affect both students who are identified as ELs, as well as those who are not identified. As a way to resist these deficit perspectives, I would like to propose and encourage a renewed effort in the realm of advocacy beyond a sole focus on implementation of policies.

From policy implementation to policy advocacy

As I noted earlier, identifying students who are eligible for language services can be a challenge for educators. This process consists of two parts: identifying potential eligibility through a home language survey (HLS) and testing whether the student is eligible using a language screener. Each part of the process has its own challenges.

While a HLS is not a designation tool, it can present as many administrative challenges if it overidentifies potential ELs as if it under-identifies them. An HLS includes three federally-mandated questions that states and districts may add to. Fewer questions could ease the administrative load in giving the HLS, but overidentification could increase the administrative load for screening. On the other hand, more questions could help narrow EL identification but miss students who may need the services.

Remember – the role of the HLS is to identify potential ELs, not eligible ELs. Current policy requires that once a student has been identified as a potential EL through the HLS, they take a screener to determine eligibility for language services.

As we reimagine accountability systems and policy, I would like to suggest that we shift from dichotomous decisions at single points in time to a more holistic, dynamic approach. A multifaceted data set could offer a richer portrayal of bi/multilingual students and their linguistic and academic assets. To this end, I suggest a system that includes

  • Student voice: interviews and observations that provide information on what the student can do and how they use language to interpret, interact and experience the world
  • Family voice: tools, like HLS, that provide information on the languages the student knows and how they use them, and the contexts in which they engage with them
  • Teacher voice: information from teachers on how they see students use language for learning
  • Standardized measures, like screeners, that provide additional information on the student’s use of language

While changing our practices will have an impact on the students we serve, our involvement in the creation and shaping of policy has the potential to impact larger numbers of students. Education is not a neutral activity; we are in service to our students. We start in our classrooms and our schools but engaging in dialogue with others and continuing to push for fair policy is a worthy cause on behalf of our students. We do not have the right answer. If we did, we would have implemented it a long time ago. The key is to continue to imagine possibilities and explore them with others so that we can get closer to the goal of equitable education for all.

About the author

Mariana Castro serves as deputy director for the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and as lead developer in various projects related to multilingual development. Her current research is related to language practices of multilingual students, curriculum and instruction in dual language immersion programs, and teacher professional learning through the lenses of social justice and advocacy.

About the reviewers

Nelson Flores is an associate professor of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He has collaborated on several research projects focused on the education of bilingual students in U.S. schools. His most recent collaboration has been with The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL), where he is studying the historical development of and contemporary implementation of standards-based reform for students officially classified as English Learners.

Samuel Aguirre is the director of WIDA Español and assistant director of consortium relations. In this position, Sam bridges Spanish language development with English language development to support bilingual education of students in the United States and abroad. His life experiences as an emergent bilingual in the U.S., work as an educator in the classroom, advocate working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and director of multilingual services at a state education agency provide a strong foundation for his role at WIDA.

About the research

This article was written using data from research conducted at the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) and funded through a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education.


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