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Chapter 3: Supporting Academic Success

Lack of effective instruction can limit opportunities and lead to poor outcomes for students with learning and attention issues, who are often misunderstood as not trying hard or not being capable of more. With the right support, these students can achieve at high levels. But schools that lower expectations or standards can make it harder for students with learning disabilities and ADHD to graduate with the skills needed to succeed in college or the workforce.

Achievement gap

Children with specific learning disabilities (SLD) have average or above-average intelligence, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) points to a wide achievement gap between students with and without disabilities.


Nationwide 7 out of 10 students with SLD and other health impairments (OHI) spent 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms in 2015-2016. Inclusion can improve outcomes—but only if teachers can meet the needs of diverse learners.


Students with IEPs were 85% more likely—and students with 504 plans were 110% more likely—to repeat a grade than their peers without disabilities in 2013–2014. Retention increases the risk of dropping out.


70.8% of students with SLD—and 72.1% of students with OHI—left school in 2013–2014 with a regular diploma, lagging behind the national average by about 10 percentage points. The graduation gap for students with disabilities is even worse among some racial and ethnic groups. Approximately 35% of black, Hispanic and Native American students with disabilities left high school without a regular diploma in 2014–2015, compared to less than 25% of Asian and white students.


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes accountability requirements that disaggregate outcome data by subgroups including disability status and provides funding to increase the use of evidence-based interventions at schools with large learning gaps. The law also includes new initiatives that focus on struggling readers, including a Comprehensive Literacy Center to help educators and parents recognize early signs of dyslexia and to offer training on effective instructional strategies.

Recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education clarifies how to use IEPs to set high standards and provide appropriate supports:

  • IEPs can include terms like dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia
  • IEP goals must be tied to grade-level standards

Amid the growing movement to embrace neurodiversity, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and other best practices can help educators design curricula that meet the needs of all students. Personalized learning builds on UDL in ways that enable students to master a standard set of rigorous competencies while working at their own pace, with choices in how they access information and demonstrate their learning—with support in areas of need such as executive function and self-advocacy.


Engineering major Elijah Ditchendorf describes in this video the low expectations and limited opportunities he faced in middle school because of his dyslexia.


New Hampshire leads the way in personalized learning through competency-based learning that extends beyond the classroom.