January 27th, 2017

Supporting Academic

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.


1. More than 90% of students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) scored below proficient on the 2013 NAEP.

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

The NAEP is often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card.” Every two years it assesses the reading and math skills of a large, nationally representative sample of fourth and eighth graders and provides an important comparison across states. In this graphic we focus on the 2013 NAEP results because SLD data have yet to be released for the 2015 NAEP, as of March 2017. (The data that have been released so far for the 2015 NAEP indicate that more than 80% of students with all types of disabilities scored below proficient.1)

Even with the best accommodations^, students with SLD will experience significant challenges accessing the core curriculum if they do not achieve basic skills in reading and math. This is especially true in middle and high school, where the focus of special education often shifts away from intensive intervention toward supports that help students complete assignments and prepare for tests in their regular classes.

To close the achievement gap, schools need to provide intervention—early and with sufficient intensity—in addition to providing accommodations that help students with disabilities access grade-level content.

2. Nationwide, 7 out of 10 students with SLD and OHI spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms—where teachers may not be prepared to support them effectively.

Inclusion refers to educating special education students in general education classrooms alongside their peers who are not receiving special education services. When inclusion begins early and embeds supports into the curriculum, students have better outcomes, including higher test scores and graduation rates. But without enough supports in place, inclusion alone may lead to negative outcomes for students with disabilities.

The majority of students with SLD now spend 80% or more of the school day in general education classrooms. Inclusion is also rising for students with other health impairments (OHI), many of whom have ADHD.

There is no question that inclusion is appropriate and beneficial for the vast majority of students with learning and attention issues when adequate support is embedded into the curriculum.

But many general educators say they don’t have the training or resources needed to help students in special education succeed in the general education curriculum.2

Despite increasing rates of inclusion, many teacher preparation programs don’t require all candidates to demonstrate the skills needed to effectively instruct diverse learners. Graduates of these programs often arrive in schools that do not have a culture or mechanism for educator collaboration. Many schools also lack the resources to provide high-quality professional development to address gaps in teachers’ skills or knowledge.

Between the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2015, all but three states increased the percentage of students with SLD who spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms. Only Arkansas, Montana and West Virginia experienced decreases since 2008—and those decreases were small.

The majority of students with SLD and OHI spend most of their day in general education classes. And, as noted earlier in this report, many of the other kids in general education classes may have undetected or unidentified disabilities. These two facts underscore the need for general education teachers to:

  • Build expertise in evidence-based practices that make rigorous content accessible to diverse learners
  • Recognize signs of learning and attention issues and look for ways to support and accelerate learning
  • Monitor student progress and work closely with parents and specialized service providers

However, improving training and resources for general educators is only part of the solution. More support is needed for special educators and school administrators, and schools also must help increase collaboration among all educators.

3. Students with disabilities are much more likely to repeat a grade, which studies show increases the risk of not graduating.

Students with an Individualized Education Program^ (IEP)—including those with SLD and OHI—are 85% more likely to be held back or retained than their peers who have not been identified with disabilities.3 For example, in 2013–2014, students with IEPs made up 12% of high school students but 22% of high school students who had to repeat a grade.4

Students with a 504 plan^ were also disproportionately retained: in 2013–2014, they were more than twice (110%) as likely to be held back as students without disabilities.5 Louisiana had the highest percentage of retained students who had 504 plans (10.9%). Texas had the highest number of retained students who had 504 plans (11,339), which accounted for 7% of students who repeated a grade.

A large-scale, longitudinal study asked parents about grade retention and found that about one-third of students with SLD or OHI had been held back at least once.6 Research shows retention can have long-lasting effects on students academically and socially.

In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience problems such as poor relationships with peers, aversion to school, behavior issues and low self-esteem. Repeating a grade is also one of the most powerful predictors of dropping out in high school.

Students who repeat a grade are at least five times more likely to drop out of school. The probability is even higher for students who are retained more than once.7

For these reasons, parents and schools should weigh the long-term risks associated with having students repeat a grade against the challenges they are likely to face if they are promoted to the next grade before they have mastered certain skills. Assistive technology^ and other accommodations can often help students access grade-level curriculum while they receive remedial instruction.

If it’s necessary to repeat a grade, schools should specify which new interventions will be put in place to help the student succeed. It is also essential that schools use evidence-based interventions that are proven to be effective for students with learning and attention issues.

4. Graduation rates for students with SLD and OHI still lag 10 percentage points behind the national average.

Researchers believe that 85% to 90% of students with IEPs can meet the same graduation standards as all other students—if they receive specially designed instruction and appropriate supports and accommodations.8 Yet in 2014–2015, only about two-thirds (64.6%) of students with disabilities graduated with a regular diploma, compared to 83.2% for all students.9

In 2013–2014, 7 out of 10 students with SLD and OHI left school with a regular diploma, about 1 in 9 received a certificate of completion and more than 1 in 6 dropped out.10 (Certificates of completion and dropout rates are discussed later in this report.)

In January 2017, USED released exiting data by disability type for the 2014–2015 school year, but withheld information about some states due to questions about the data.) As the chart below makes clear, there is wide variation among states, with 90% or more students with SLD receiving regular diplomas in Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota and New Jersey compared to less than 50% in Mississippi and Nevada.

It’s also important to note that the requirements to earn a regular diploma vary significantly across states—and the differing practices make it hard to know just how prepared students with disabilities really are when they graduate from high school.11

Thirty states allow schools to adjust the graduation requirements so that students with disabilities can receive a regular diploma. For example, some states may:

  • Allow IEP teams to decide on a student’s diploma requirements
  • Allow students to fulfill graduation course requirements with less rigorous course substitutes
  • Accept lower passing grades on end-of-course tests for students with disabilities (as compared to students who do not have identified disabilities)
70.8%of students with SLD left school in 2013–2014 with a regular diploma, up from 68.4% in 2010–2011


72.1%of students with OHI left school in 2013–2014 with a regular diploma, up from 70% in 2010–2011


82.3%Graduation rate for all students in 2013–2014, up from 79% in 2010–2011

It’s unclear how many students with learning and attention issues leave high school with a diploma that does not represent their true level of preparation for life beyond high school. Lower standards to receive diplomas may help explain why one major study found that, within eight years of leaving high school, one-third (32.7%) of young adults with learning disabilities were not employed and only 41% had graduated from college, compared to 52% of all students.12

Certificates of Completion

Many states offer certificates of completion to students with disabilities who don’t meet the academic requirements for a regular diploma. These are sometimes called certificates of attendance or special education diplomas.

Students who leave school with a certificate rather than a regular diploma are not counted in their state’s graduation rate. Because these certificates are not as rigorous as standard diplomas, they may negatively impact a student’s ability to:

  • Apply for financial aid in college or vocational school
  • Enlist in the military
  • Get hired for jobs that require a diploma

“All schools should be striving to hold students with disabilities to the highest standards and supporting them on the path to a regular diploma. We know that students with disabilities are highly capable of meeting high bars when we set them. And with the right supports, accommodations and services, it can be done. We should be giving every student the same opportunity for success.”


—Martha Thurlow, Ph.D.,
Director, National Center on Educational Outcomes

5. Outcomes for students with disabilities differ significantly by race and ethnicity.

The government doesn’t report special education data broken down by race and ethnicity as well as by disability category. But racial and ethnic data about students with all types of disabilities (54% of whom are identified with either SLD or OHI) indicate that:

  • Approximately 35% of African American, 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.
  • Native American students with disabilities drop out at nearly twice the rate of white students with disabilities.

As these figures indicate, schools and communities must do more to improve the graduation rate of all students with disabilities, and increased focus and sensitivity are needed to improve outcomes of minority students with IEPs. Dropout rates will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.

6. Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers, but they are significantly underrepresented in gifted programs and AP courses.

Twice-exceptional students are gifted and have disabilities. They may struggle in different ways to achieve their full potential:

  • Their strengths may mask their weaknesses and keep them from getting identified as having a disability
  • Their weaknesses may overshadow their strengths and keep them from getting identified as gifted
  • Their strengths and weaknesses may cancel each other out and keep them from getting identified either as gifted or as having a disability

The federal government has made clear to states that students cannot be denied the opportunity to participate in an accelerated program because they have a disability.13 In fact, with the right supports and services, many students with disabilities can succeed in rigorous, accelerated courses. Yet students in special education remain significantly underrepresented in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and gifted and talented education programs (GATE). Children who are gifted and have disabilities are often referred to as “twice-exceptional^.”

States need to take more steps to ensure equity in accelerated programs for students with disabilities and other historically underserved groups.

For example, only seven states (AL, AR, CO, KY, PA, SC, WI) included “gifted with a disability” in their state definition about kinds of giftedness.14

More research is needed to determine how many twice-exceptional students are being denied access to rigorous content or to accommodations that would allow them to thrive in an accelerated curriculum.

7. Some parents are seeking alternatives to traditional public schools—and their choices may affect their children’s rights and access to services.

In recent years, school choice options have expanded. As of January 2017, charter schools are allowed in 43 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools^. In addition, more than 30 states have programs that provide students with money to attend private schools^ or to be used for homeschooling. These programs may include state-funded school vouchers^, educational savings accounts^, and tax-credit scholarships. A small number of these states have programs specifically for students with disabilities to attend a private school, or a school other than the student’s assigned public school.

It’s important for parents to understand how school choice may affect their child’s rights and access to services. For example, public charter schools, including full-time virtual schools^ and magnet schools^, must follow all federal laws relating to students with disabilities. These schools have to provide special education services to students who need them.

By contrast, only certain parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to private schools. Title III of ADA prohibits private schools from discriminating on the basis of a disability and requires private schools to provide reasonable accommodations. But this part of the law does not apply to religious schools, which make up a large percentage of private schools.

Further, state law varies on whether rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) continue for students in special education who choose to use a voucher and attend a private school. In some states, when parents use voucher funds to enroll their child in a private school, they may waive their due process rights and services that the child is entitled to under IDEA. For example, Florida’s voucher program revokes a student’s IDEA rights, while Arizona’s program makes clear there is no state monitoring of compliance with student rights.15 It’s also important to note that when private schools are unable to meet a student’s need, the student may be sent back to his or her local public school.

Although alternatives to traditional public schools have some potential upsides, the table below explores the challenges that different types of schools may pose for students with learning and attention issues.

Families need to understand that by enrolling in a private school through a voucher program, their rights under IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 may not be protected.
Private schools 5.4 million
  • Can reject any applicant or decide to expel a student at any time, but can’t discriminate on the basis of a student’s disability
  • Are exempt from federal accountability requirements
School vouchers and education savings accounts (ESA)17 147,000
  • Are exempt from federal accountability requirements
  • Families using school vouchers to help pay private tuition may be required to relinquish civil rights protections as well as their rights under IDEA—including entitlement to an IEP, education in the least restrictive environment, and disciplinary protections
Public charter schools 2.5 million students
  • These schools tend to be smaller and to have less experience than traditional public schools in providing a full continuum of placement options for students with disabilities
  • On average enroll fewer students with IEPs (10.42%) than traditional public schools (12.55%)
  • Suspend and expel slightly greater proportions of students with disabilities than traditional public schools
  • Lack of clarity regarding role of charter school authorizers in holding schools accountable for special education
Full-time virtual schools 316,320
  • While all states must identify online learners who qualify for special education, only three states have procedures or guidance for doing so, and only one state (Florida) has clear procedures for monitoring students with disabilities in fully online settings
  • Full-time online schools offer flexibility in environment that helps keep some students from dropping out, but all subgroups of students—including those with disabilities—had weaker academic growth in full-time virtual charter schools than in traditional public schools
  • There is limited research on how to support students with disabilities in virtual learning environments and there are also concerns about how accessible virtual programs are to students with disabilities
  • Teacher training programs are not preparing educators for virtual instruction
  • In some cases, student-to-teacher ratios may exceed 200:1
Magnet schools 2.6 million
  • Can have selective admission process that may include requiring applicants to take tests
  • Demand can exceed supply, and long waiting lists can make it harder to tell why some students get in while others don’t.
  • Are required to provide the same special education services as any other public school
Homeschooling 1.8 million
“It’s unfortunate that school choice in some states means that parents must relinquish their rights under IDEA. When it comes to private school voucher programs, federal rights should not be separated from federal dollars. Students with disabilities, no matter where they attend school, should receive the services they are entitled to under the law.”


—Michael Yudin,
Former assistant secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education



1. Setting high standards—and holding schools accountable—for the performance of students with disabilities can be an effective lever for change.

In 2014, the federal government announced a major shift in the way it evaluates states’ special education programs. This initiative, called Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), focuses on outcomes and success for students with disabilities. It is governed under IDEA but is aligned with ESSA and requires states to report new data, such as how many students with disabilities are proficient on the NAEP and how their scores compare to those of general education students.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the first federal law to acknowledge that too often students with disabilities face lower expectations about what they can learn and do. For the first time ever, NCLB held all students to the same high expectations and held schools accountable for the performance of students with disabilities in a manner similar to that of students without disabilities. When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) NCLB in 2015, it maintained the law’s commitment to upholding high expectations for all students. That’s why ESSA includes safeguards to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, are fully included in each state’s accountability frameworks.

NCLB required schools with more than a certain number of students with IEPs to disaggregate—or report separately—their test scores. Researchers compared those schools with ones that did not reach the minimum subgroup size and found that schools being held accountable for the performance of students with disabilities were more likely to:18

  • Use a tiered intervention system
  • Instruct a higher percentage of students with disabilities in general education classrooms co-taught by general education and special education teachers
  • Instruct a lower percentage of students with disabilities in resource rooms
  • Provide more professional development related to instructing students with disabilities to general education and special education teachers
  • Provide monthly coaching related to instructing students with disabilities to general education and special education teachers

ESSA maintains disaggregation of outcome data by subgroups, including disability status. It also provides funding that can be used in schools with large learning gaps to increase the use of evidence-based interventions and improve professional development.

However, the new law offers more flexibility than NCLB did. As states revise their accountability plans, NCLD and other advocacy groups urge states not to step back from the expectation that all students can learn rigorous content and be prepared for college, career and civic success.19

ESSA’s Accountability System
Schools must continue to test students every year in reading and math and report the scores by subgroup. States are still required to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, plus in science once in each of three grade spans: grades 3–5, grades 6–9, and grades 10–12. States must also report on how students perform on these tests by subgroup—race, income, ethnicity, disability, and whether students are English learners. However, states and school districts are encouraged to examine their testing requirements and eliminate any unnecessary local tests.
States can set their own academic goals as well as how they measure progress toward meeting these goals. NCLB had set a goal that 100% of students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and schools’ success was based on their progress toward this goal. Under ESSA, states can set their own goals for proficiency as well as how they measure schools’ progress each year.
States can design their own system to hold schools accountable and decide how much test scores and other factors will matter. States can choose how to evaluate school performance within the federal framework, but they must factor in:

  1. Student proficiency in reading and math
  2. Student academic growth
  3. Graduation rate
  4. English language proficiency
  5. A fifth indicator each state chooses that relates to school quality or student success. This indicator may focus on such things as discipline rates, chronic absenteeism, or some other measure that addresses the social, emotional and behavioral success of students.
States can decide what should happen when schools fail to meet goals. In the past, when schools failed to meet goals, federal law required specific interventions. Under ESSA, states and districts determine which schools are failing and then create a plan to improve them. ESSA requires states to identify schools:

  1. That are the lowest-performing 5% in the state
  2. Where less than two-thirds of students graduate in four years
  3. Where certain groups of students—such as students with disabilities—are consistently underperforming. The state will decide how long students must fall behind before the school has to make a change.

As each state develops a new accountability system under ESSA, constituents must be given a chance to participate in the process of setting yearly goals and choosing which factors will be used to assess schools. The law requires that stakeholders—including parents—must be included in the decision-making process. To help parents of students with learning disabilities and ADHD get involved in ESSA advocacy in their state, NCLD created a toolkit that includes sample letters and talking points about the ways states and school districts can use the law to support children with disabilities.

“With more decisions being made at the state and local level under ESSA, there is tremendous opportunity for parents and advocates to help identify schools where students are falling behind and help ensure that action is taken.”


—Kati Haycock,
CEO, The Education Trust

2. Changes in teacher preparation and professional development can help educators meet the needs of diverse learners.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that is designed to give every student the opportunity to learn. UDL provides flexibility in each of these areas:

  • How information is presented
  • How students demonstrate what they know
  • How students engage with the material

Teacher training and professional development need to change to reflect the reality of today’s general education classroom, where a majority of students in special education spend the majority of their time—and where many children with unidentified disabilities are also struggling to succeed. It’s more important than ever to equip teachers with the knowledge, skills, and resources to effectively instruct diverse learners.

ESSA acknowledges this reality and encourages states and districts to use federal funding to help teachers expand the use of Universal Design for Learning^ (UDL).

The law mentions UDL several times and defines it as a framework that “provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged” and “reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.”

UDL is one of five key ways states can help current and future teachers meet the needs of all students, including those with learning and attention issues.

Ways to Improve Teacher Preparation and Professional Development
Training for educators, including general education teachers, special education teachers, and school administrators
  • Set a requirement for elementary school teacher mastery of literacy and math instruction
  • Set a minimum of credit hours that general educators must complete in special education courses such as child development or differentiated instruction
  • Require teacher candidates to complete quality experiences teaching students with disabilities
  • California tests all elementary candidates on the five elements of scientifically based reading instruction—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension—and requires candidates to show they know how to intervene and support struggling students. By contrast, 12 states don’t require testing teacher candidates on the science of reading.
Licensure for educators, including general education teachers, special education teachers, and school administrators
  • Require educators to demonstrate competency in educating diverse learners
  • Require special educators to demonstrate knowledge across content areas for the grades they will teach as well as skills to support differentiation of instruction and evaluation of learning progress
  • New York and Wisconsin require tests in all core areas as part of special education licensure for middle and high school. But as of September 2016, they are the only two states where this is a requirement.
Identification of learning and attention issues
  • Expand teacher training and professional development to help educators identify the signs of learning and attention issues
  • Create resources that direct educators to use evidence-based interventions and teaching practices to help all students stay on track for success
  • Dyslexia laws in states like Maine and New Jersey include provisions to ensure teachers receive training that can help them recognize when students may be showing signs of this disorder.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • Require all educators to demonstrate mastery in teaching strategies that incorporate the principles of UDL and meet the needs of all students
  • Require states and school districts to design systems that integrate UDL, including the procurement of materials, provision of professional development, and support of school leaders
  • Offer on-demand, competency-based mini-courses that focus on discrete skills (which can include things like UDL, personalized learning, or checking for student understanding)
  • Let educators choose which micro-credentials to pursue
  • Give digital “badges” that teachers can display online, including in their résumés or on blogs, after they earn a micro-credential
Best practices in instruction

Schoolwide approaches such as UDL and a multi-tier system of supports^ (MTSS) benefit all students, including those with learning and attention issues. But more educators need access to best practices in evidence-based instruction for different kinds of learning and attention issues. For example, many educators may have heard of using multisensory structured language education. But few educators are trained to use this approach to help students with dyslexia^ make progress in reading.

Likewise, evidence-based instruction has been shown to help students with dyscalculia^ develop their “number sense.” But it is often difficult for educators to locate best practices. To make this information broadly accessible, NCLD has begun the initial planning for Understood for Educators, a free resource that is expected to launch in 2018.

3. Personalized learning is a growing movement that has the potential to transform education for all students—and especially those with learning and attention issues.

Not all personalized learning is online, and not all online learning is personalized. Personalized learning is also not the same thing as using technology in the classroom. Technology can be helpful but is not required. Digital learning is not a substitute for having a teacher available to guide students.

Dozens of districts and schools in more than 20 states have started using personalized learning^. When done well, personalized learning can:

  • Enable all students to master a standard set of rigorous competencies, while allowing them to do so at their own pace, with structure and support in challenging areas, and with choices in how they demonstrate their learning
  • Customize learning to align with each student’s interests, needs and skills
  • Engage students in ways that help them gain a better understanding of their strengths
  • Take place in a traditional classroom, online, in a blend of these environments, or outside the classroom as an extended learning opportunity

As part of a yearlong project, NCLD gathered experts from across the country in the fields of education and personalized learning–including general and special educators, advocates, researchers, state and district leaders, school leaders and parents of children with disabilities—to explore best practices for meeting the needs of students with disabilities through personalized learning. Here is a summary of the project’s findings:

Personalizing Learning Can Transform Education
This approach to education benefits all students—and especially those with disabilities—by:

  • Increasing student engagement and achievement
  • Encouraging a growth mindset
  • Giving students who think differently multiple ways to show what they have learned
  • Building decision-making and self-advocacy skills
  • Reducing the stigma of special education
But for personalized learning to work, the following things need to happen:

  • Personalized learning paths need to align with a rigorous set of standards, and schools have to meet the needs of students with disabilities or else they will fall behind.
  • Assessments must be aligned with rigorous standards and personalized learning paths and must be equitable for students with disabilities in order to produce valid and reliable data on performance and progress.
  • Students with disabilities must have access to appropriate technology. This means that any technology used in the classroom must be accessible and compatible with other types of assistive technology, and should also be available during internships and other projects outside of the classroom that deepen and support their learning.
  • Parents of students with disabilities must be informed of their child’s progress and empowered to become involved in their child’s learning and engage regularly with educators about their child’s progress.
  • Educators must keep in mind the heavy demands that personalized learning systems may place on executive functioning skills and be ready to support students in this environment.

For NCLD’s full set of policy and practice recommendations, visit ncld.org/personalizedlearning.

4. ESSA funds two new initiatives that aim to help struggling students learn how to read.

For many students with learning and attention issues, reading can be difficult. To help struggling students learn how to read, ESSA provides funding for two new resources:

Literacy Education Grants

The law authorizes Congress to give up to $160 million in literacy grants to states and schools. The Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) grants will be awarded to:

  • Ensure high-quality literacy instruction in reading and writing for children from early childhood through grade 12, including English learners and children with disabilities
  • Fund comprehensive literacy programs “that include explicit, systematic and intentional instruction in, phonological awareness, phonic decoding, vocabulary, language structure, reading fluency and reading comprehension”
  • Provide high-quality professional development for teachers and literacy coaches
Comprehensive Literacy Center

ESSA authorizes the creation of a national center that focuses on reading issues for children with disabilities, including dyslexia. In 2015 Congress passed a budget allocating $1.5 million for the center that is expected to begin operating in 2017. The center will:

  • Help educators and parents recognize early signs of dyslexia and other literacy-related challenges
  • Focus on how to meet the needs of students who struggle with reading, writing, language processing, comprehension or executive functioning due to a disability like dyslexia
  • Offer training to help teachers use effective instructional strategies and provide accommodations

5. Using the IEP in new ways is helping to set high standards.

Students with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers and, with the right support, can achieve at high levels. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Education (USED) issued a guidance letter that reinforces the need to uphold high expectations for students with disabilities. Other recent advances in IEP development also help support academic achievement.

IEP goals must be tied to grade-level standards USED in 2015 made clear to states that the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) means a child is making progress toward academic standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled. This is an essential concept for schools to understand and honor if they are to hold high expectations for all students. USED specified that IEP goals must be “ambitious but achievable” to help children who are behind catch up.
IEPs can include terms like dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia USED encouraged states to use these terms in IEPs, at IEP meetings and in evaluations used to determine eligibility for special education. USED also encouraged states to review policies and practices “to ensure that they do not prohibit the use of the terms.” Using these terms can help parents and educators speak the same language at meetings. These terms may also make it easier to identify effective interventions and supports that target the student’s particular areas of need.
IEP goals can focus on strengths as well as weaknesses Too often IEP goals focus only on deficits. Advocates are encouraging IEP teams to include asset-based goals, which can help build on students’ strengths, tailor their academic experience to their interests, and drive them toward success. IEPs can and should be powerful drivers of student achievement toward their goals—and toward grade-level standards. This can be done if IEPs are reimagined to focus on and lead with student strengths and interests.
IEPs must provide needed behavioral support USED made clear in 2016 that IEPs must provide appropriate behavioral interventions and supports for students in special education whose behavior impedes learning. For some students, behavior challenges are an obstacle to learning. By including behavioral supports, IEPs can prevent unnecessary disciplinary removals that take students away from instructional time.
IEPs can be used to promote self-advocacy IEPs can include self-advocacy goals to help students learn how to ask for support when they need it. These goals can also help students develop self-awareness about their strengths and weaknesses. Self-advocacy is an essential tool that can help more students graduate and succeed in the workplace. IEP teams can build in frequent opportunities to practice and demonstrate these skills.

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


New Hampshire Leads the Way in Personalized Learning

Imagine a school where teachers help customize the curriculum to align with each student’s interests—and with a rigorous set of standards too. This is becoming a reality in New Hampshire, where the effort to move schools to competency-based learning models has been underway for years.

Many of the state’s high schools let students earn credit for learning that happens outside of the classroom—a program referred to as extended learning opportunities (ELOs). Students who participate in these nontraditional courses have been more likely not only to stay on track to graduate but also to take the SATs and enroll in college.

By tapping into students’ interests and providing individualized support, ELOs and other personalized-learning initiatives in New Hampshire may be especially helpful for the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues.

In the spring of 2016, a 12th grader with dyscalculia graduated on time after completing an ELO focused on math. She designed the ELO around her existing internship at a boutique—where she was learning about retail and marketing—and worked with her math teacher to ensure the goals aligned with the school’s math competencies and standards.

The ELO allowed her to learn math in the context of a job she enjoyed and to practice using those skills in real-world activities such as determining price markups and making a profit. She met frequently with her math teacher during the ELO and at the end of it gave a presentation on what she had learned.

She plans to enroll in community college and recently reflected on her ELO experience. “It helped me so much because it was hands-on, and it was also one-on-one so I got all the help I needed,” she said. “It was the best thing I ever did.”

1. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2015). The Nation’s Report Card: 2015 Math & Reading Assessments.
2. Blanton, L. P., Pugach, M. C., Florian, L. (2011). Preparing general education teachers to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education & National Center for Learning Disabilities.
3. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2016). Civil rights data collection 2013-2014 raw data.
4. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2016, October 28). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look.
5. U.S. Department of Education (2017, January 06). IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables; U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2016, October 28). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look.
6. Lipscomb, S., Haimson, J., Liu, A.Y., Burghardt, J., Johnson, D.R., & Thurlow, M.L. (2017). Preparing for life after high school: The characteristics and experiences of youth in special education. Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012. Volume 2: Comparisons across disability groups: Full report (NCEE 2017-4018). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
7. Jimerson, S. R., Woehr, S. M., & Kaufman, A. M. (2004). Grade retention and promotion: Information for parents. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
8. Achieve & U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Outcomes (2016). Diplomas that matter: Ensuring equity of opportunity for students with disabilities.
9. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Common Core of Data: Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by race/ethnicity and selected demographics for the United States, the 50 states, and the District of Columbia: School year 2014–15.
10. 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. Washington, DC.; U.S. Department of Education (2017, January 06). IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables.
11. Achieve & U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Outcomes (2016). Diplomas that matter: Ensuring equity of opportunity for students with disabilities.
12. Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A., Marder, C., Nagle, K. Shaver, D., & Wei, X. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School: A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3005, pp. xxvi, 50, 55). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
13. Monroe, S. (2007, December 26). Dear Colleague Letter: Access by Students with Disabilities to Accelerated Programs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.
14. National Association for Gifted Children & The Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted (2015). 2014-2015 State of the states in gifted education: Policy and practice data. Washington, DC: National Association for Gifted Children.
15. Almazan, S., Marshall, D. S. (2016). School vouchers and students with disabilities: Examining impact in the name of choice. Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
16. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016–144); U.S. Government Accountability Office (2016). School choice: Private school choice programs are growing and can complicate providing certain federally funded services to eligible students (GAO-16-712); U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016–144); Evergreen Education Group (2015). Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice (12th Edition); Magnet Schools of America (2015). Facts about magnet schools; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2014). Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (PFI-NHES:2003, 2007, and 2012).
17. State-authorized education savings accounts (ESA) are loosely analogous to vouchers in that they provide parents with access to public tax dollars that would otherwise be allocated to the student’s district of residence. Parents are allowed to use the funds to purchase education expenses such as private school tuition, textbooks and tutoring as their child is educated either in a private school or at home.
18. Harr-Robins, J., Song, M., Garet, M., & Danielson, L. (2015). School practices and accountability for students with disabilities (NCEE 2015-4006). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
19. Parsi, A. & Casey, M. (2016). Policy update: ESSA & students with disabilities (Vol. 23, No. 20). National Association of State Boards of Education.

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