Linguistic bias can be bias towards speakers of other languages or dialects, or towards bilingual speakers and results in inaccurate assessment of children from linguistic backgrounds other than Standard American English. As a result, minorities are overrepresented in special education programs (IDEA 2004).
Bias is evident both in the examiner and in testing materials. Bias in the examiner is often caused by a lack of the necessary knowledge and skills required by the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) to assess children from culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds (ASHA, 2004). Examiners working with speakers of other languages may not have enough fluency in the language or may not be familiar with expectations typical of the child’s culture (see cultural bias). Regarding dialects, some examiners may not be familiar with the dialect of the student and mistake typical constructions for evidence of a language disorder. For example, in African American English (AAE) the third person “-s” such as in “he walks to school” is deleted in typical speech, resulting in “he walk to school.” This is not the result of a language disorder. In fact, according to ASHA (1983), “no dialectal variety of English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language…it is the role of the speech-language pathologist to treat only those features or characteristics [of speech and language] that are true errors and not attributable to the dialect.”
Assessment materials can also contain linguistic bias. For speakers of other languages, most standardized tests were not normed on a population representative of the child’s linguistic background or they were merely translated from the English version. The New York State Department of Education (NYSED, 1990, pp 8-9) has prohibited scores obtained from translated tests, stating, “Scores obtained from tests translated, but not standardized, on the student’s cultural group or translated by the examiner during the assessment processes may not be used as representative of the students’ present performance. The information collected and reported should be of a descriptive nature.” Even if the normative sample does contain individuals from the child’s linguistic background, they are likely not present in numbers sufficient to mean that the standard scores will be accurate for that child. Additionally, almost all standardized tests were written in Standard American English (SAE), which would influence the comprehension of dialect speakers. While most test manuals direct the examiner not to mark dialectal variations as incorrect, examiners may not be aware of this.
English Language Learners (ELLs) present another linguistic challenge to examiners. While the ELL may not yet be proficient in English, he or she may be losing skills in their first language (L1). The untrained examiner could mistake lack of proficiency in both languages for a disorder when it may be a combination of L1 attrition and normal second language acquisition. In fact, research has demonstrated that ELLs present with similar expressive language as monolingual children with SLI (Paradis, 2005). For this reason, it is essential that the examiner be trained in typical bilingual language development and get a full history of exposure to different languages and dialects during the evaluation process as Misidentification affects the student’s and others’ perceptions of the child’s capacities and abilities as well as their expectations of the student’s achievement. Harry & Klingner, 2006).
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1983). Social dialects [ Position Statement]. Available from http://www.asha.org/policy/PS1983-00115.htm
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2004). Knowledge and skills needed by speech-language pathologists and audiologists to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services [Knowledge and Skills]. Available from http://www.asha.org/policy/KS2004-00215/
Harry, B. & Klingner, J., (2006). Why are so many minority students in special education?: Understanding race and disability in schools. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, H.R.1350,108th Congress (2004)
Paradis, J. (2005). Grammatical morphology in children learning English as a second language: Implications of similarities with specific language impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 36, 172-187.