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Chapter 2: Identifying Struggling Students

Early and accurate identification of learning disabilities and ADHD in schools can set struggling students on a path for success. But identification can be influenced by many factors—and too often is not happening early enough.

Disparities in special education identification

Learning and attention issues affect children from all income levels and across all races and ethnicities. Yet low-income children, students of color and English language learners are more likely to be identified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD). Bias plays a key role in over- and underrepresentation.

Delays in SLD identification

Learning disabilities don’t suddenly appear in third grade. Researchers have noted that the achievement gap between typical readers and those with dyslexia is evident as early as first grade. But many students struggle for years before they are identified with SLD and receive needed support.

Identifying ADHD in schools

Though many children have ADHD, it’s hard to tell how many have been identified in school as having a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Federal guidance has made clear to states that when ADHD is the main reason students qualify for special education, they should be classified under Other Health Impairments (OHI). That category accounted for 15% of students receiving special education in 2015–2016, up from 11% in 2008–2009. (SLD remains the largest disability category, accounting for nearly 39% of students receiving special education in 2015–2016.)

Some students with ADHD may be receiving accommodations under Section 504 rather than IDEA, but Section 504 doesn’t require schools to classify students by disability type. The percentage of students with a 504 plan has nearly doubled since 2009 .


A multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) can help schools with early intervention and accurate identification. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers funding to develop this type of decision-making framework, which uses data from frequent progress monitoring to help educators quickly respond to students’ needs and provide targeted instruction and support. One key component of MTSS—universal screening—aids teachers’ observations by assessing all students, not just the ones showing outward signs of struggle.

Signed into law in 2016, the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia (READ) Act directs funding for research that may lead to:

  • Identifying dyslexia earlier
  • Training educators to better understand and instruct students with SLD or dyslexia
  • Developing curriculum and tools for students with SLD and dyslexia
  • Implementing and scaling successful models of dyslexia intervention

A majority of states have passed laws that focus on third-grade reading proficiency and/or early identification of dyslexia. These laws are expanding the use of early intervention in many states.

Many states are using kindergarten entry assessments to identify students who may need further testing. A few states have started identifying students with SLD before age 6.


Advocate and former teacher Rachel Vitti describes in this blog the long and winding road to identifying her son’s twice-exceptional^ issues.


Kansas’s integrated MTSS framework helps improve student outcomes by using data-based decision making in all content areas as well as behavior and social and emotional learning.