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Is This Child Mislabeled?


Serge Romanich, a third-grade student and refugee from Serbia, spoke limited English.   He had witnessed war first hand; having seen his father killed, and his mother maimed. His education had been sporadic at best and the new elementary school he was attending had tested and classified him as learning disabled.


A week before school was scheduled to start, Harry Simms, the principal at Oakwood Elementary, was busy at his desk. The school secretary entered his office and said, "There are some people here to see you, I think they want to enroll a student."

Harry stood up and welcomed the visitors, two women and an-eight-year-old boy.

"I am Byona Romanich and this is Serge," said one of the women.

The other woman quickly added, "I am Byona’s sister-in-law, Trina. I am here to interpret for her because she speaks only French, Russian, and Spanish--very little English. She would like to enroll Serge in the school."

"Thanks," responded Harry. "Ask her to tell me about Serge."

Trina translated as Byona talked. "Serge was born in Serbia and his development was completely normal, just like the other little boys of the village. He was getting ready to begin school when the trouble began. He is now a very quiet young boy, but he has seen more than most children. There were bomb explosions in our village and several of our relatives were killed.  His father and I made plans for two years to leave our country. When we got to the border, there was trouble with our papers and the guards tried to detain us. My husband told us to run but when we did, they shot and killed him.  I was injured so seriously that I lost my arm. Serge saw all of this."

Mrs. Romanich continued her story of the family's struggle for freedom. "We went to France and stayed with relatives outside Vichy. Serge was ready for his first year of school, but he did not attend until the beginning of the second year due to my extended hospital stay. During his schooling in France, he did not speak the language very well and received no teaching of how to read. At that point, Serge, his sister, and I traveled to America to join my brother."

Harry did not know how to respond to such a tragic story. He decided simply to welcome Serge to Oakwood and assure Mrs. Romanich the school staff would help him adjust to his new environment.

Serge was placed in a third grade class and received additional services from the Limited English Proficiency (LEP) program. Serge made very little progress over the next few months. He was essentially a non-reader and showed little aptitude in the LEP class. Serge’s teacher suggested to Mrs. Romanich that perhaps Serge had a learning disability that should be explored with testing. Mrs. Romanich rejected that possibility, stating that she felt that Serge would catch up as he became more proficient in speaking the language.

By the end of the year, Serge had not caught up. He was still struggling with the language and had made very little academic progress. Mrs. Romanich reluctantly agreed to have Serge tested. When the testing was complete, she met with Serge’s teachers, the principal, and the school psychologist. The school psychologist read the evaluation results. "Serge’s score on the Leiter (a nonverbal intelligence test) was 105. On the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, he scored at least 2 standard deviations below the mean in the areas of auditory processing, short term memory, comprehension knowledge, and fluid reasoning. He scored in the average range in: long term processing, processing speed, and visual processing. On the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement, Serge scored 2 standard deviations below the mean in reading, written language, and knowledge. He scored in the average range in math."  The school psychologist then turned to Mrs. Romanich and her interpreter and said, "What all of these tests show is that Serge has a learning disability and would benefit from individualized and small-group instruction for part of the day in a resource room." Everyone around the table nodded in agreement except Serge's mother.

Mrs. Romanich said, "I think Serge is just having trouble picking up the language. At home he does fine. He seems so intelligent to me."

"He is intelligent, Mrs. Romanich, but he has a learning disability that is holding him back. We can help him overcome that disability and achieve his full potential. He will also continue to receive services in the LEP class," the psychologist responded. Mrs. Romanich finally agreed to the placement.

Serge made limited progress in the fourth grade in spite of his new placement. The fifth grade, however, proved to be a true success story for Serge. His new resource teacher in his learning disabilities class, Mrs. Evans was in her third year of teaching. She was impressed by the diversity of the students at the school, including a large population of children of Serbian descent.   She became interested in finding out as much as she could about the culture and background of her students in order to develop a relationship with them. She developed an especially close relationship with Serge.

Mrs. Evans worked with Serge in a resource pull-out program for two hours every day. She also went into Serge's classroom three times each week for language arts in order to provide him with additional support. Serge’s proficiency with the oral component of the English language increased as well as his reading skills. The combination of resource room instruction and an inclusive language class was proving to be effective. Serge had risen from a non-reader to a second-grade level in oral language and reading comprehension. His math skills were even higher.

Mrs. Evans observed firsthand Serge's rapid intellectual growth. She noted that when Serge was introduced to a new word and its definition, he was able to retain that knowledge. Although Serge was still a quiet child and hesitant to become involved in detailed English conversations, he was very comfortable when talking socially to his Serbian peers.

Mrs. Evans became concerned about Serge's learning disabled diagnosis. She decided to check out his records in the school office. As she read his file, she discovered that the initial testing was done in English and Serbian, but Serbian was used only if Serge indicated that he did not understand what was being said. She thought of the gains Serge had made this year and the trauma he had experienced. "Just how valid were the evaluation procedures for a child so young, so traumatized, and struggling with the language?" she thought to herself. "Should I question the school’s evaluation procedures? I’m new here and up for tenure this year. I don’t want to cause any waves by questioning the judgment and authority of the psychologist and the administration. But, I also don’t think a child should be mislabeled." She continued to ponder the situation as she closed Serge’s file and handed it back to the secretary.


Discussion/Study Questions:

1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

1. Was Serge's testing biased in any way?

2. Was a special education placement appropriate for Serge?

3. What assessment tools and procedures would be most appropriate in this situation?

4. How can depression and post-traumatic stress affect learning?

Teaching Suggestion:

Have students administer various subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson to each other. Then, have them discuss why they thought Serge scored 2 SD below or at the mean on each subtest.


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Characteristics and effects of the cultural and environment milieu of the child and family.

Ethical concerns related to assessment.

Appropriate application and interpretation of scores.

Influence of diversity on assessment, eligibility, programming, and placement of exceptional learners.

The relationship between assessment and placement decisions.

Other Areas:

Assurances and due process rights related to assessment, eligibility, and placement for students who are culturally and/or linguistically diverse.


globe.gif (2512 bytes) To the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education

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