January 25th, 2017

Identifying Struggling

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.

Personal Perspective

Rachel Vitti

“My husband and I were reluctant to have our son evaluated. We were well aware of the statistics about children of color in ‘special ed.’ But we forged ahead because we knew we needed more information to help Lorenzo be successful in school.”Rachel Vitti, parent advocate and former teacher in Florida


1. Not all children with learning and attention issues are identified in school as having a disability.

Students who are identified by schools as having a disability may qualify for one of two types of assistance. An Individualized Education Program^ (IEP) provides specially designed instruction, accommodations^, modifications^ and related services such as speech-language therapy to students who qualify for special education. A 504 plan^ provides accommodations and related services to general education students who are identified with a disability but who do not need special education.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans are protected from discrimination. Schools are also required to report certain data on students who are identified as having disabilities, such as how many repeat a grade, receive out-of-school suspensions or graduate on time.

1 in 16public school students have IEPs for specific learning disabilities (SLD) or other health impairments (OHI), which covers ADHD



1 in 50public school students have 504 plans1

But many of the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues are not formally identified with a disability. When these children receive the right interventions and informal supports, many can succeed in general education. Without enough support, however, children with unidentified disabilities may not reach their full potential and risk falling behind and having to repeat a grade. This could lead to other problems, including dislike of school, absenteeism and dropping out.

Some students who repeat a grade may eventually be identified with a disability after they have fallen far behind. Many others may slip through the cracks and leave school without ever being identified.

1.22 millionstudents repeated a grade in 2014–2015



76%of them were general education students who had not been identified as having a disability

Why do some children’s learning and attention issues remain undetected or unsupported in school? This table explores contributing factors.

Why Some Struggling Students Are Not Identified
Signs of learning and attention issues get overlooked or misinterpreted. For example, in surveys only 28% of parents and 39% of classroom teachers recognized frequent refusal to go to school as a possible sign of learning and attention issues.2
Some parents refuse to let schools “label” their child. Educators who have recommended that children be evaluated for special education services said parents followed their recommendation only 56% of the time.3
The response to intervention (RTI) process helps many students, but it is sometimes used incorrectly to delay or deny a timely evaluation for students suspected of having a disability. In 2016 the U.S. Department of Education (USED) issued two letters reminding states that intervention strategies cannot be used to delay or deny evaluation of students suspected of having a disability.4
Schools sometimes determine incorrectly that students who are gifted and have learning disabilities are not eligible for special education because they score too high. For example, some students perform well in some content areas and not others, or they may score too high on assessments used to determine eligibility for special education. However, in 2015, USED reminded states that children with learning disabilities cannot be found ineligible for special education solely because they scored above a particular cut score established by state policy.5 Without the right support, even exceptionally bright children will struggle academically. This can lead to low self-esteem, school aversion and lost potential.

Learning and attention issues that remain undetected or unaddressed can lead to lifelong difficulties that include low self-esteem, underemployment and increased risk of involvement with the justice system. For these reasons, it is imperative for researchers to help schools and families understand more about why some students with learning and attention issues are formally identified while others are not.

2. Fewer students are being identified with specific learning disabilities (SLD)—and it’s unclear why.

The percentage of students in special education who were identified with SLD changed from 43% in the fall of 2008 to 39% in the fall of 2015, a 9.3% decrease. SLD includes students who have dyslexia^, dysgraphia^ and dyscalculia^ and is still by far the biggest of the 13 disability categories under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), accounting for more than 1 in 3 students receiving special education.

During the same period in which SLD identification has declined, however, the percentage of students in special education who were identified with other health impairments (OHI)—which covers ADHD—increased from 11% to 15%, a 36% change. OHI now accounts for about 1 in 7 students in special education.

Rates of SLD identification vary widely by state. Since 2008, ten states have experienced increases in SLD identification (CO, CT, GA, IA, KY, LA, NB, NM, NC, and WV) while nine states have experienced declines of more than 20% (DC, ID, KY, MA, MS, MT, RI, TX, and WI).

Understanding what is driving these changes at the state and national level requires further study. This is especially important because there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a corresponding decrease in the prevalence of dyslexia and other kinds of learning disabilities. There are several factors that experts have hypothesized as potential explanations for the decrease in SLD identification:

  • Students with SLD and another disability (such as autism) may be classified under that other disability category and still receive services for SLD.
  • New state laws and other efforts have increased focus on literacy education in recent years and may be helping struggling readers make progress in general education.
  • Increased use of response to intervention^ (RTI) and 504 plans may help some students with learning and attention issues succeed in the general education curriculum.
  • An increased federal investment into the Head Start program6 over the last decade and preschool development programs within the last few years may be offering early opportunities to identify and address challenges before special education services are needed.

3. It’s hard to tell how many students with ADHD are identified by schools as having a disability.

Much like SLD, signs of ADHD can be evident from a young age. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests ADHD evaluations should be conducted for children age 4 or older who demonstrate academic or behavioral challenges and show signs of inattention, impulsivity or hyperactivity.

However, unlike learning disabilities or autism, ADHD does not have a discrete disability category under 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 Impaired (OHI).7 Because studies indicate that ADHD accounts for the vast majority of OHI students,8 this report uses OHI data as a rough proxy for students in special education who have ADHD.

But ADHD often co-occurs with other disorders, and IDEA does not track comorbidities. School teams must choose a primary disability so that each student is only counted once each year. An IEP may provide services and support for more than one type of disability, but this level of detail is not included in federal data. It is also difficult to tell how many students shift from one primary disability to another from year to year.

For these reasons, researchers have looked to parent surveys for insights on how many students in special education have ADHD. More research is needed to get a clearer picture of which students with ADHD are being identified in school and how well schools are meeting the needs of these students.

4. The early signs of learning and attention issues often go unnoticed.

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.9 In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) issued a memorandum making clear that evaluations should not be delayed or denied even for preschool-age children.10 Yet many students struggle for years before they are identified with SLD.

As the graphic above shows, only 6.6% of students in special education were identified with SLD at age 6. By age 10, the percentage of students in special education who were identified with SLD had increased to 40.8%.

During these years, identification of developmental delays and speech/language impairments decreased. But even if all of those decreases were due to students being reclassified with SLD, those shifts still don’t account for some 40,000 students who were identified with SLD at age 10.

Because many students with SLD struggle with reading, waiting to identify the issue in the upper elementary grades and beyond puts students at significant risk of experiencing academic difficulties in later grades. Students with SLD are likely to enter middle and high school settings without the essential literacy skills needed to meet rigorous academic standards.

“Each student is unique. While we can’t predict how any student will respond to an intervention, we can help students make progress and prevent struggles from becoming stumbling blocks. We can identify at-risk students early. We can use evidence-based instruction until the student becomes successful. And we can prepare teachers to work effectively with students who struggle with learning to read, write or do math. We must do each of these if we’re going to identify problems as early as possible and make a difference for students. Too often we aren’t doing enough early enough.”


—Louisa Moats, Ed.D.,
Reading development expert and member of the International Dyslexia Association Council of Advisors

5. Learning and attention issues affect children from all income levels, but low-income children are more likely to be identified as having SLD.

People from all walks of life have learning and attention issues, but data indicates that children in poverty are identified at a higher rate. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, children living at or below the federal poverty level are more than twice as likely to be identified with SLD as children in households with income four times the poverty level.11

Research does not indicate a clear reason for this trend, but several factors likely contribute to the higher rate of SLD identification among low-income children. In particular, environmental factors may play a role:

  • Studies indicate that poverty increases the risk of low birthweight, exposure to lead and other risk factors associated with disabilities.12
  • Children living in poverty are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).13 ACEs can cause chronic stress that affects neurodevelopment in ways that make it harder to learn and control emotions. Students who experience four or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning or behavioral challenges.14

Potential bias may also impact identification:

  • A recent study of special education in Massachusetts found that low-income students were much more likely to be identified with a disability if they attended school in a relatively high-income district than if they attended school in a relatively low-income district, suggesting that low-income students may be overidentified with disabilities.15

“Low-income students were identified in very high numbers. This may indicate that the failure to meet the needs of some of these children resides in general education. Assigning disability labels to children who are not disabled runs the risk of lowering expectations and, through segregated placements, restricting access to the general education classroom.”


—Thomas Hehir, Ed.D.,
Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and former OSEP director

As researchers continue to investigate the influence that different factors, including poverty, have on SLD identification, educators and healthcare professionals need to ensure that students at all income levels who are suspected of having a disability are thoroughly evaluated. This can help schools effectively allocate resources and keep expectations high for all students.

6. Racial and ethnic disparities persist in SLD and OHI identification.

The term ‘overrepresentation’ is often used when the percentage of students from a racial or ethnic group identified for special education exceeds that group’s percentage of total school enrollment.


‘Underrepresentation’ is used when the percentage of students identified for special education is smaller than that group’s percentage of total school enrollment.

Disability identification rates are often disproportionate to the overall enrollment rates for students in different racial or ethnic groups. For example, African American students made up nearly 16% of public school students nationwide and 20% of students identified with SLD in 2013–2014. That year, Asian students made up nearly 5% of public school students, but only 1.5% of students with SLD.16

The field is in agreement that no one race or ethnicity is more likely than another to have a learning or attention issue based on race or ethnicity alone. However, there are numerous factors that may influence the prevalence and identification of learning and attention issues, including adverse childhood experiences and bias.

Some studies have found that the effects of poverty amplify racial disparities, but do not solely explain the racial disproportionality among students in special education.17 Many researchers point to data that indicates African American students are overidentified as needing special education services, with cultural bias likely playing a role in overidentification.18

When students of color are misidentified as needing special education services, it can lead to fewer opportunities and lower expectations for those students. For example, research shows that minority students and English language learners are not only disproportionally labeled as needing special education services but are also more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings.19

Students of color in special education spend less time in general education classrooms than white students in special education,20 which is troubling because studies have repeatedly shown that inclusion in general education classrooms has a positive effect on academic and social outcomes for students with disabilities–and particularly for students with learning disabilities.21

These findings emphasize the importance of using comprehensive evaluation and identification procedures that are free from bias when identifying students in need of services, which can lead to the overrepresentation of some races in special education.

Disparities in ADHD Diagnosis

This table explores disparities in the rate of ADHD diagnoses, which rose 43% nationwide from 2003 to 2011.22 The disparities among racial and ethnic groups, as well as by gender, income level and relative age, underscore the need for comprehensive evaluations to ensure an accurate diagnosis of ADHD. Thorough evaluations for attention issues should include nationally normed rating scales that ask the parent, child and teacher to compare the child’s behavior to same-age peers.

Race/ethnicity In 2011–2013, the prevalence of diagnosed ADHD among children ages 4–17 was 11.5% among non-Hispanic white children, 8.9% among non-Hispanic black children and 6.3% among Hispanic children. Non-Hispanic white children are still the most likely to have ever been diagnosed with ADHD. However, a recent analysis of data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that while the rate of ADHD diagnoses rose 43% nationwide from 2003 to 2011, Hispanics experienced the largest increase during this period (83%).
Income level Children in low-income families are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children in higher-income families. In 2011–2013, 10.4% of children in families with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty threshold had ever been diagnosed with ADHD compared to 8.8% of children living in families with incomes 200% or more of the poverty threshold. Insurance may play a key role here. In 2011–2013, children with public insurance had the highest rate of ADHD diagnoses (11.7%) compared to 8.6% of children with private insurance and 5.7% of uninsured children.
Gender Several studies have found that boys are more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD as girls. The CDC reported that in 2011–2013, 13.3% of boys ages 4–17 had ever been diagnosed with ADHD compared to 5.6% of girls. The reason for the gender difference in the prevalence of ADHD (and several other neurodevelopmental disorders) is not fully understood. Some but not all of the difference may be due to girls showing signs of ADHD that can appear different than in boys—and that are easier to overlook.
Age A large-scale study in Taiwan concluded that the youngest students in each grade were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest students—findings that are consistent with similar studies in the U.S. and Canada. The study found that relative age increased the risk of ADHD diagnosis among preschoolers and grade-schoolers. Birth month had less of an impact on ADHD diagnosis among adolescents.

Sources:Association Between Diagnosed ADHD and Selected Characteristics Among Children Aged 4–17 Years: United States, 2011–2013,” CDC, NCHS Data Brief No. 201 (2015); Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Parent-Reported Diagnosis of ADHD: National Survey of Children’s Health (2003, 2007, and 2011), Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (2016); The Prevalence of DSM-IV Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Meta-Analytic Review, Neurotherapeutics (2012); Influence of Relative Age on Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Taiwanese Children, The Journal of Pediatrics, (2016)

More research is needed to better understand the relationship between factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, adverse childhood experiences, and the prevalence and identification of learning and attention issues.

Federal regulations that were finalized in 2016 aim to bring equity to IDEA by requiring schools to take action when there are disparities in identification, special education placement, or discipline. Discipline disparities are discussed in detail later in this report, as are disparities in high school graduation rates among different racial and ethnic groups.

7. English language learners with SLD are overidentified in some states and underidentified in others.

14.4%Percentage in 2013–2014 of students with SLD who were ELLs in Utah, where ELLs comprised 5.7% of the overall student population


2.2%Percentage in 2013–2014 of students with SLD who were ELLs in New Jersey, where ELLs comprised 4.5% of the overall student population

Nationwide, English language learners (ELLs) made up 9% of all public school students but 12% of students identified with SLD in 2013–2014. When ELLs struggle with academics, it is often very challenging to discern whether the difficulties are due to second-language acquisition, a learning disability or both.

Many states lack clear policies as well as professionals with expertise in this area.23 Inconsistent practices contribute to overidentification in some states and underidentification in others.

For example, in Utah ELLs comprised 14.4% of students with SLD but only 5.7% of the overall student population in 2013–2014. There were three other states that year (ID, MT and VA) where the percentage of students who were identified with SLD who were ELLs was more than twice as high as the percentage of ELLs among the overall student population. ELLs were overrepresented by at least 50% in a dozen other states.24

In contrast, in New Jersey the percentage of students with SLD who were ELLs (2.2%) was half the state’s overall percentage of ELLs (4.5%).25

Overrepresentation suggests possible confusion between SLD and issues involving second-language acquisition. Underrepresentation may reflect a misunderstanding among educators that leads them to wait to identify students with SLD until after they no longer need English as a second language (ESL) services.

Clearer guidance is needed to help educators decide when to refer ELLs for special education evaluation and which services can address ELLs who also have SLD.

“There seems to be a mistaken belief that special education and ESL services should be thought of as ‘either/or’—that once ELLs qualify for special education, they no longer qualify for language support services. An important principle to keep in mind is that ELLs with LD are entitled to a full range of seamless services designed to meet their individual language and learning needs.”


—Janette Klingner, Ph.D., and Amy M. Eppolito, Ph.D.,
Coauthors of English Language Learners: Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities26

8. 504 plans have nearly doubled in recent years, but we don’t know how well they are meeting students’ needs.

As detailed in the graphic below, the percentage of students with 504 plans has nearly doubled since 2009. These plans have fewer reporting requirements—and fewer procedural safeguards for families—than IEPs.

Section 504 does not require schools to classify children with 504 plans by type of disability, and more research is needed to understand how many children with learning and attention issues are receiving accommodations and related services through these plans. For example, Texas requires schools to provide 504 plans to students whose only disability is dyslexia.27

Further study is also needed into how these determinations are made and how outcomes compare for students with IEPs and 504 plans.



1. ESSA funding for multi-tier systems of supports (MTSS) may help improve early identification.

A multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) is defined in ESSA as “a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making.”28

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind as the federal law for K–12 education. Title II of ESSA, which provides states with funding for initiatives that will increase student achievement and the quality and effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, encourages states to develop programs such as a multi-tier system of supports^ (MTSS).

MTSS uses data from frequent progress monitoring to help educators quickly respond to students’ needs and provide targeted instruction and support to prevent failure. The framework includes tiers of support that increase in intensity from one level to the next. RTI and positive behavioral interventions and supports^ (PBIS) are both examples of MTSS.

This table explores some common benefits and challenges for using these systems to help students with learning and attention issues.

How MTSS Can Help With Early Intervention and Identification
Universal screening aids teachers’ observations by assessing the needs of every student, not just the ones who are demonstrating outward signs of struggle. Even with the screening results, it may be hard for educators to differentiate between learning and attention issues and other reasons for underachievement.
Educators can intervene as soon as student struggle is recognized. Schools need to provide ready access to specialists who typically only work with students who have IEPs or 504 plans.
Targeted instruction and support are provided before a referral for special education assessment is made. Interventions must not delay or restrict a parent’s right to request a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education services or other supports.
Decisions about instruction and support are based on actual classroom performance—in addition to test scores and subjective observations. All school personnel need to develop expertise in collecting, interpreting and responding to student progress data.

Under ESSA, Title II funding may help more schools improve data collection, involve specialists when needed, and personalize students’ instruction in ways that remove barriers to learning. Many schools have adopted multi-tiered systems, but studies indicate schools are struggling to effectively implement a continuum of supports.29

More research is needed to understand the role of MTSS in state identification rates. Some early adopters have shown an increase in SLD identification rates. For example, the percentage of students in special education who were identified with SLD in Colorado increased from 41.5% in the fall of 2008 to 46.3% in the fall of 2014, a nearly 12% change. Other early adopters have shown significant declines. Idaho’s SLD identification rate decreased from 37.1% in 2008 to 25.1% in 2015, a 32% change.

To help educators follow best practices when making an SLD determination using an RTI-based approach, NCLD created a free toolkit and downloadable worksheet that were developed in partnership with the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Advocates are also exploring data-based individualization (DBI) for students in the most intensive tier of support.30

2. READ Act funding for dyslexia research may help improve early intervention and identification.

Signed into law in 2016, the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act (READ Act) requires the National Science Foundation (NSF) to spend at least $5 million per year on SLD research. Half of this funding must focus specifically on dyslexia. The law is aimed at producing new research that may lead to:

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

3. Third-grade reading laws are expanding the use of early intervention in many states.

Children who don’t read well in third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a regular diploma compared to proficient readers.31

Up until third grade, students generally work on mastering basic reading skills. But after third grade, reading is needed to build skills and content knowledge in subjects like history or science. That’s why third grade is often referred to as the pivotal year when students shift from learning to read to reading to learn.

This helps explain why 38 states have passed laws relating to third-grade reading proficiency. The laws are designed to ensure that students have the foundational reading skills needed to enter fourth grade, when the focus of the curriculum changes significantly.

Third-grade reading laws are leading many states to expand the use of early assessment, which provides professionals with tools to better understand and respond when a child is struggling to learn. Expanding early identification of reading challenges can help schools identify and address learning and attention issues before students fall far behind.

Most third-grade reading laws provide for frequent monitoring and intensive interventions to help students reach reading proficiency standards. Twenty-three states now require students to repeat third grade if they are not reading proficiently, but nearly all of these states allow for some exemptions.

NCLD and the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) have outlined best practices for evaluating and implementing third-grade reading laws.32

Third-Grade Reading Laws Vary From State to State
Screening Some laws include screening for reading difficulties every year from Pre-K through grade 3. Other states may not screen until grade 3. All students must be screened and observed in the classroom for reading difficulties at least yearly between Pre-K and grade 3.
Intervention Most laws require an improvement plan and evidence-based interventions for students demonstrating difficulty with reading. Every year from Pre-K through grade 3, struggling readers must have individual reading plans and receive intensive, evidence-based interventions based on those plans.
Parent engagement Some laws have more detailed parent engagement plans than others. Policies must include parent notification and provide opportunities for parent engagement in developing and implementing interventions.
Measures of success Some states offer alternate assessments—such as reviewing a portfolio of a student’s work—to ensure that one test isn’t the only determining factor for promotion or retention. Policies must provide students with multiple methods to demonstrate reading ability.
Retention A majority of laws allow or require students to be retained—or not promoted to fourth grade—if they have not demonstrated a certain level of proficiency by the end of third grade. Some laws allow promotion as long as the student participates in summer school or some other intervention. Some states limit retention to part of the curriculum rather than retaining a student in all areas, and require periodic reviews to determine if the student can rejoin the original grade cohort. Given that repeating a grade increases the risk of dropping out and is associated with other negative outcomes, retention should remain a last resort. If retention is required, it must be coupled with intensive intervention and a change in instruction. States must make efforts to ensure that all teachers, especially third-grade teachers, are trained to provide reading instruction and can implement a full range of evidence-based strategies for struggling readers.
Appropriate exemptions Most of the states that require retention will make an exception for students with IEPs and allow them to move on to fourth grade without meeting the reading proficiency requirements. Exemptions are also typically available for English language learners (ELLs). Students with disabilities, as a whole, must not be exempted automatically from these policies. Many students with disabilities are capable of meeting the same high standards as their peers when they are provided with appropriate supports and tailored instruction.

4. State dyslexia laws aim to improve early intervention and identification.

Over the past few years several states have passed laws related specifically to the early identification of and intervention for dyslexia. As of Nov. 1, 2016, 26 states had passed laws relating to dyslexia, and six have begun exploring the issue through pilot programs and task forces. Dyslexia laws vary from state to state but tend to include a few key components:

  • Definition of dyslexia: Most state laws establish a specific definition of dyslexia within the state’s education code, often indicating that dyslexia is a type of learning disability that impacts reading.
  • Universal screening: Some state laws require schools to screen all students in certain grades to find children who struggle with certain literacy skills. Some laws call for universal screening annually from grades K–3. Some begin as early as Pre-K.
  • Evidence-based intervention: Many state laws require schools to provide evidence-based instruction for students who have been identified as displaying signs of dyslexia.
  • Professional development: Some laws provide for the development of resources and information to help teachers identify and address dyslexia. Different states approach this in different ways. Some call for appointing dyslexia specialists or coaches who can offer training and support to teachers. Other states have made changes to teacher preparation programs to include coursework or licensure requirements relating to literacy and dyslexia.

5. Kindergarten entry assessments are being used to identify students who may need further testing.

73%of public schools that offer kindergarten classes reported using kindergarten entry assessments

Many states have started using kindergarten entry assessments (KEA). These tests, which are sometimes called kindergarten readiness assessments, are administered to students who are entering kindergarten.

The purpose of these assessments is to help identify particular skills with which a student may be struggling, such as numeracy or literacy skills. These assessments are an important first step to identify potential challenges for students but should be followed by appropriate and effective intervention for students who are struggling.

More research is needed to assess the impact of KEAs. According to a survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. public schools collected in 2010–2011, nearly all (93%) schools that administered KEAs reported using them to individualize instruction, two-thirds (65%) reported using them to identify students needing additional testing for learning issues and one-fourth (24%) used them to advise parents to delay kindergarten entry.33

6. Some states are starting to identify children ages 3–5 with SLD.

For at least a few students in a few states, educators appear to have identified SLD very early. In the 2015–2016 school year, 8,252 children ages 3–5 were identified with SLD. Three-fourths of these children were in four states: California, Iowa, New Jersey and New York. Further study is needed to understand the accuracy and impact of identifying very young children with SLD.

For a full discussion of how to address the challenges and opportunities discussed in this chapter, see NCLD’s Recommended Policy Changes.



Kansas Helps Improve Student Outcomes Through Integrated MTSS

In 2005, Kansas started using a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) to help educators focus on using data-based decision making in one content area such as math or reading. Since then, the system has evolved into a comprehensive framework that applies MTSS to all content areas as well as social and emotional learning and behavior.

As of November 2016, more than 80,000 students were being served in schools that are in the process of adopting the Kansas Integrated MTSS framework.

The framework, which is one of the bright spots in a state facing a massive school-financing crisis, has several key components:

  • Universal screening is conducted three times a year to determine which students need which levels—or tiers—of support
  • Tier 1 interventions are provided class-wide as part of core instruction
  • Tier 2 interventions are provided to small groups of students three to five days a week
  • Tier 3 interventions are provided daily, one-on-one
  • Interventions must be scheduled so that students don’t miss any core instruction
  • School leadership and professional development in this area—as well as a culture of empowerment—are essential

A recent study found that MTSS is helping improve student outcomes in Kansas in several ways, including more students meeting proficiency standards and fewer students being referred for discipline or special education evaluations.

“Just-in-time data enables us to make solid instructional decisions and look at progress on a daily basis so we can make adjustments right away,” said Colleen Riley, the director of early childhood, special education, and title services at the Kansas State Department of Education. “We’ve focused on academics as well as social-emotional skills so that kids understand what is expected of them in school. It’s a powerful framework that reflects our dedication to helping every student achieve.”

1. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2016, October 28). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look; U.S. Department of Education (2017, January 06). IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables.
2. Learning and Attention Issues (October 2014). Unpublished raw data from survey conducted by GfK.
3. Ibid.
4. Lhamon, C. (2016, July 26). Dear Colleague Letter and Resource Guide on Students with ADHD. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights; Ryder, R. (2016, April 29). A Response to Intervention Process Cannot Be Used to Delay-Deny an Evaluation for Preschool Special Education Services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
5. Musgrove, M. (2015, April 17). Letter to Delisle: Children with disabilities with high cognition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2016). Head Start Program Facts Fiscal Year 2015; Committee for Education Funding (2016). Education Matters: Investing in America’s Future: Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Analysis (pp. 100-101). Washington, DC.
7. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2003, August). Identifying and Treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Resource for School and Home. Washington, DC.
8. Brock, S. E., Jimerson, S. R., & Hansen, R. L. (2009). Identifying, assessing, and treating ADHD at school. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 24-25.
9. Ferrer, E., Shaywitz, B. A., Holahan, J. M., Marchione, K. E., Michaels, R., Shaywitz, S. E. (2015) Achievement Gap in Reading Is Present as Early as First Grade and Persists through Adolescence. The Journal of Pediatrics, 167(5), 1121-1125.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2015.07.045.
10. Ryder, R. (2016, April 29). A Response to Intervention Process Cannot Be Used to Delay-Deny an Evaluation for Preschool Special Education Services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
11. Committee to Evaluate the Supplemental Security Income Disability Program for Children with Mental Disorders (2015). Mental Disorders and Disabilities Among Low-Income Children. Boat, T.F., & Wu, J.T. (Eds.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
12. Samuels, C. (2015, June 24). Minorities less likely to be identified for special education, study finds. Education Week.
13. Child Trends (2013, July). Adverse Experiences: Indicators on Children and Youth.
14. Burke, N. J., Hellman, J. K., Scott, B. G., Weems, C. F., & Carrion, V. G. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(6), 408–413. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.02.006.
15. Hehir, T., Schifter, L., Grindal, T., Ng, M., & Eidelman, H. (2014). Review of Special Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: A Synthesis Report. Boston, MA.
16. U.S. Department of Education (2017, January 06). IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables; National Center for Education Statistics. Common Core of Data.
17. Skiba, R. J., Poloni-Staudinger, L., Simmons, A. B., Feggins-Azziz, L. R., & Chung, C. (2005). Unproven links: Can poverty explain ethnic disproportionality in special education? The Journal of Special Education, 39(3), 130-144.
18. Phippen, J. W. (2015, July 6). The racial imbalances of special education. The Atlantic.
19. De Valenzuela, J. S., Copeland, S. R., Qi, C. H., and Park, M. (2006). Examining educational equity: Revisiting the disproportional representation of minority students in special education. Exceptional Children, 72(4), 425-441.
20. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2016, October). 38th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (pp. 51). Washington, DC.
21. Cole, C. M., Waldron, N., & Majd, M. (2004). Academic progress of students across inclusive and traditional settings. Mental Retardation, 42(2), 136-144; Waldron, N. L., & McLeskey, J. (1998). The effects of an inclusive school program on students with mild and severe learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 64(3); Baker, E. T., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (1994). The effects of inclusion on learning. Educational Leadership, 52(4), 33-35.
22. Collins, K. P., Cleary, S. D. (2016). Racial and ethnic disparities in parent-reported diagnosis of ADHD: National Survey of Children’s Health (2003, 2007, and 2011), Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 77(1), 52-59. doi: 10.4088/JCP.14m09364.
23. Burr, E., Haas, E., & Ferriere, K. (2015). Identifying and supporting English learner students with learning disabilities: Key issues in the literature and state practice (REL 2015–086). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory West.
24. U.S. Department of Education (2017, January 06). IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables.
25. Ibid.
26. Klingner, J., & Eppolito, A. M., (2014). English Language Learners: Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
27. Texas Education Agency (2014). The dyslexia handbook: Procedures concerning dyslexia and related disorders. Austin, TX.
28. The Every Student Succeeds Act, Public Law No: 114-95 (2015).
29. Balu, R., Pei Z., Doolittle, F., Schiller, E., Jenkins, J., & Gersten, R. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading (NCEE 2016-4000). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
30. For more information, visit the National Center on Intensive Intervention website at http://www.intensiveintervention.org.
31. Hernandez, D. J. (2012). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
32. National Center for Learning Disabilities (2015). Third grade reading laws: Their impact on students with learning & attention issues.
33. Shields, K. A., Cook, K. D., & Greller, S. (2016). How kindergarten entry assessments are used in public schools and how they correlate with spring assessments (REL 2017–182). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands.

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