Maine DOE provides special services eligibility guidance for English learners

The Maine DOE recognizes that, due to their limited English language proficiency, determining eligibility for special education services for English learners (ELs) may be challenging. These challenges, however, should not result in ELs failing to be properly evaluated for eligibility for special education and related services.  Maine DOE recommends that school administrative units (SAUs) with EL populations review the proportion of ELs in their unit identified for special education in comparison to the SAU’s overall special education identification rate.

The Maine DOE’s Data Warehouse can be used to determine the unit’s overall percentage of special education students, then calculate the percentage of the district’s ELs that have been placed in special education.  This can be done by dividing the number of special education-identified ELs by the total number of ELs in the district.  A pattern of over- or under-identification may indicate the need for review of the SAU’s referral process for ELs.

Is it a speech or language impairment?

The following questions might assist the IEP team in distinguishing a speech or language difference from a speech or language impairment:

  • Are the results obtained from both formal and informal measures consistent?
  • Do educator concerns mirror parent concerns?
  • Do the student’s speech and language skills qualitatively differ from other bilingual members of the family, especially siblings?
  • To what degree do the student’s speech and language abilities differ from those of other second-language learners?
  • Are there common areas of weakness between languages?
  • Does the Test-Teach-Retest approach yield significant improvements in any skill areas that may indicate normal language potential?
  • Do the weaknesses observed on formal language measures translate into 9 disruptions in functional communication skills across environments?
  • Are errors in speech sound production due to the influence of L1 (first language) on L2 (second language) (e.g. p/b and v/f substitutions in English from a native Arabic speaker or sh/ch substitution in English from a native Spanish speaker) and an indicator of dialect and not difference?
  • Is speech intelligibility impaired in both languages to the same degree?
  • Has the student continued to demonstrate significant speech and language difficulties despite numerous, varied and documented research-based interventions?

One resource available is the Bilingual Verbal Ability Tests (BVAT) available here:

 Is it a learning disability?

Providing appropriate special education services to ELs requires reliable evaluations. Evaluations often used to determine eligibility for a learning disability may not have been normed on the EL cohort, however. For further exploration of this topic, please see the following guidance and webinar:

ELs who meet the eligibility criteria are entitled to special education and related services adequate to address their educational needs, and Individualized Education Program (IEP) Teams for ELs with disabilities should include a school representative who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of ELs with disabilities. This representative should be knowledgeable about the availability of agency resources needed to enable ELs with disabilities to meaningfully access the general education curriculum. This will ensure that the services included in the EL’s IEP are appropriate for the EL and can actually be provided. Under Maine Department of Education Regulations, Chapter 101, Maine Unified Special Education Regulation Birth to Age Twenty (MUSER) §IX.3.C(2)(b), the IEP Team must “[i]n the case of a child with limited English proficiency, consider the language needs of the child as those needs relate to the child’s IEP.” To implement this requirement, the IEP Team should include participants who have the requisite expertise about the student’s language needs.

If you have questions concerning eligibility for English learners with special needs, please contact Maine DOE Office of Special Services, Jonathan Braff at or 624-6671 or Roberta Lucas at or 624-6621.

Direct questions about educational or English language acquisition services for English learners to ESL/Bilingual Programs Director Nancy Mullins at or 624-6788.

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