In my six years as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to work with six English Language Learners. Four of which were from Mexico, one was from the Philippines, and one was from Russia. Each student had unique needs and circumstances, but none were evaluated for learning disabilities. All of the students received extra help with their language in one form or another, but not under the realm of special education (none of them had IEPs). Most recently I've worked with a little girl from Russia. She moved to Michigan about five years ago (I taught her two years ago in third grade and again this year for 5th grade). We do not offer special education services at our school, but she has gotten extra help through Title I. Even if we did have special education, I don't believe it would be beneficial to her because she excels in so many things. She struggles with her reading, writing, and spelling, but has made immense growth in the past 5 years.
I believe the problem of misdiagnosis occur both ways - those who are learning disabled go undiagnosed, while some who are not learning disabled are labeled as such. I personally have never recommended an ELL student for special education evaluation based on low achievement, the students I worked with showed great progress and responded well to the strategies that I used with them within my own classroom so I did not feel that it was necessary to make referrals. I can see how this would happen though. According to an article about assessing ELLs for learning disabilities, many students are actually referred to special education because of “socioeconomic, linguistic and cultural factors rather than psychoeducational factors” (Geva, 2000, p. 14). When you take into account all that factors that effect student learning, it is easy to see what a proper diagnosis can be difficult. With that in mind, it is also important to remember that some ELLs DO have learning disabilities. I think that many teachers, perhaps myself included, often attribute difficulties in language acquisition to the fact that the student is not a native English speaker. Because of this, ELLs may be given more leeway, or simply allowed to struggle with the idea that as they become more proficient in English, their overall achievement will improve. In evaluating ELLs for special education, we need to take more into account than the native language of a student. Just because a student is not a native English speaker, does not mean that they have a learning disability, nor should we use their native language as an excusable reason for failure.
Geva, E. (2000). Issues in the Assessment of Reading Disabilities in L2 Children—Beliefs and Research Evidence.Dyslexia, 6(1), 14.