The purpose of this study was to examine the special education referral and decisionmaking process for English language learners (ELLs), with a focus on Child Study Team (CST) meetings and placement conferences/multidisciplinary team, meetings. We wished to learn how school personnel determined if ELLs who were struggling had disabilities, to what extent those involved in the process understood second language acquisition, and whether language issues were considered when determining special education eligibility. We observed CST meetings and placement conferences for 19 students who were considered ELLs when they were referred. Findings revealed that in practice, only cursory attention was given to prereferral strategies. Most students were pushed toward testing, based on an assumption that poor academic performance or behavioral difficulties had their origin within the child and indicated a need for special education. Although some school personnel were quite knowledgeable about language issues, many were not. There was tremendous variation in the quality of what transpired during meetings. These differences were influenced by the intentions, knowledge, skills, and commitment of CST or multidisciplinary team members. All the factors we describe point to aspects of the process that should be improved.
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