Purpose: We examined the association between language experience and elementary students' eligibility for special education in Massachusetts.
Method: A secondary descriptive data analysis was conducted on the anonymized demographic data obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Third, fourth, and fifth grade students were categorized into native English speakers, English-proficient bilingual students, and emerging bilinguals. Free-/reduced lunch status was also considered. Proportions of students eligible for Autism, Communication Disorders, and Specific Learning Disabilities (including those with dyslexia) were calculated.
Results: A strong association was observed between students' language backgrounds and whether they were eligible for free-/reduced lunch. Children eligible for free-/reduced lunch were more likely to be eligible for special education. Relative to native English speakers, English proficient bilingual students were less likely to be considered eligible for special education. However, for emerging bilinguals, eligibility was lower in third graders but increased in fourth and fifth graders. This observation was most apparent in the category of Specific Learning Disabilities.
Conclusions: Students from diverse language backgrounds and low-income backgrounds were disproportionately represented in special education. More substantial research-practice partnerships are warranted to understand how bilingual experience and socioeconomic status interacts with eligibility for special education conditions in public school settings.