Student Success Means All Students: Building Systems that are Inclusive of Students with Disabilities

August 11, 2023

By Saashya Rodrigo, Ph.D. Principal Researcher, National Center for Learning Disabilities and Amelia Malone, Ph.D. Director of Research and Innovation, National Center for Learning Disabilities 

In the 2019 – 2020 academic year, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was 71%, far below the national graduation rate of 87%. Students with disabilities drop out at over twice the rate as their non-disabled peers. 

For students with specific learning disabilities, factors such as disciplinary exclusion, lower-than-average grades, retention, low parent expectations, and poor quality of relationships within schools significantly predict graduation rates over and above sociodemographic indicators such as race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. 

Yet, students with specific learning disabilities can learn on par with their non-disabled peers if given the appropriate instructional resources and support. Students often need targeted and intensive academic support to access grade-level content. Without access, students often experience frustration and disengagement.

As one of the nine organizing partners of the GRAD Partnership, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) is committed to ensuring Student Success Systems are informed by the research on and lived experiences of students with disabilities. 

NCLD embarked on a two-phase inquiry process to identify trends and barriers to graduation among students with disabilities. In the first phase, NCLD conducted three focus group sessions with researchers, special education administrators, and young adults with learning disabilities on their perceptions of Student Success Systems. Three key themes emerged from the sessions: 

  1. Change mindsets at the school, district, and state levels with shared values rooted in equity. Data-based conversations must center on the most vulnerable students. 
  2. Take early action to change the trajectory for students with disabilities. Taking action on at-risk data in high school is often too late. Early identification and intervention are crucial to success. 
  3. Foster inclusive conversations to build cross-collaborative partnerships with students, families, educators, school counselors, social workers, etc., to collectively track goals, data, and build successful transition planning for students with disabilities. 

Participants highlighted the need to center students in the conversation to empower them to advocate for themselves and share their goals and aspirations during transition planning. Including student and family voices breaks down barriers and places value on their needs, thoughts, and desires.

In February 2023, NCLD completed the second phase by hosting a convening with educators and administrators, young adults with learning disabilities, caregivers of students with learning disabilities, disability advocates, and experts in the field of special education to dive deeper into the barriers to success transitioning out of high school. 

The conversation in New Orleans centered on identifying barriers to success and pathways of change to address issues surrounding shifting mindsets, building knowledge, and implementing systems. Moving forward, we are responsible for creating a better system that ensures that students receive appropriate and timely services and accommodations across age groups, schools, and settings. The solutions to these challenges lie in a deeper understanding of and the resulting change in the following:  

  • The type of language and cultural lens we use when addressing student strengths and needs, 
  • the skills, knowledge, and voices we consider at the decision-making table, and 
  • the overarching systems and processes we implement in the name of student success. 

Through community, voice, and action, we bridge the pervasive gap between: 

  • Expectation and reality, 
  • Knowledge and practice, and 
  • Siloed systems and constituents.

Bridging these gaps builds a better future for our students on their path to graduation and beyond. 

Listen to the conversation below, and then take a deeper dive into pathways to success for students with disabilities.

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