The issues we are raising in our article are not new. Twenty years ago was a heady time for literacy research and practice in both general education and special education. The publication of the National Reading Panel (NRP) report1 is a widely recognized landmark for literacy practices. Less frequently recognized are reports on reforming special education, such as the Fordham Foundation/Progressive Policy Institute report Rethinking Special Education for a New Century,2 the Office of Special Education Programs report Identification of Learning Disabilities: Research to Practice,3 and the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education report A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families.4
Although the NRP report addressed literacy instruction for all children, including struggling readers, reading was also emphasized in the three reports on special education. This emphasis was essential because of the number of children identified for special education with reading disabilities, which the President’s Commission estimated at up to 40 percent of all children served in special education. Moreover, it is widely recognized that most of the children served in special education under the specific learning disability category have difficulties with foundational reading skills, including the ability to decode and spell words accurately and fluently. One study5 found that four of five children in six large middle schools who did not meet criteria on the state reading accountability assessment had significant difficulties with decoding and fluency. More sobering is that only about 25 percent of these students were identified for special education. Another6 reported that only one in four boys and one in seven girls with significant reading difficulties were identified by the schools as learning disabled. Other reports address the long-term national concerns about the lack of significant growth in literacy skills in American schoolchildren, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The educational system cannot support practices in which children are provided inadequate reading instruction in general education and then referred to special education to meet their needs. All three reports raised concerns about the number of children served in the specific learning disability category because of poor reading skills. Special education has two purposes. One is to provide civil rights protections for students with disabilities. The second is to provide specially designed instruction, which in special education is usually remedial. We know that remedial instruction must be very explicit, customized, and intensive to be effective. The intention was that this instruction would be available for students with reading disabilities, not for students with garden-variety reading difficulties. Admittedly, it is difficult to tell the difference between these two groups of children, which is why assessments of instructional response are so important.
As of 2020, there has been progress. The Office of Special Education Programs now uses a targeted monitoring system in which outcomes are more prominently featured. The 2004 implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),7 and the more recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the Every Student Succeeds Act) in 2015,8 have more language encouraging early intervention, prevention, and RTI/MTSS (response to intervention/multiple tiers of systematic support). IDEA also has provisions that support identification of children for special education that focus on RTI and specific requirements that exclude children from intervention if there is not data-based documentation of adequate instruction in reading and math. Implementation of RTI/MTSS and of these special education requirements for core instruction continues to be a concern, leading to ongoing concerns about inappropriate identification of struggling readers for special education. More generally, integration of general education and special education is an ongoing concern, and they continue to be treated as separate systems.
No More Waiting to Fail
The eligibility process for special education and dyslexia in an MTSS model is different from the traditional model. In an MTSS model, children have been screened and monitored from the beginning of their schooling, facilitating early identification of literacy needs that can be quickly addressed. Traditional eligibility models for special education often wait until students have failed and then are referred without an ongoing intervention to determine that they have had sufficient and appropriate instruction. In these traditional models, students are usually referred for special education in the later grades, after failure, and at a time when remedial interventions require considerable intensity to accelerate gains because the child has not had access to print because of reading difficulties. One way to think about it is that in an MTSS model, schools identify all students who may require supports and provide them as early as possible. Perhaps we will have some students receiving these supports who would eventually have not needed them, but this is ultimately a more productive decision than waiting until students are in fourth or fifth grade, demonstrate significant reading problems, and also have developed a poor esteem about their success as readers.
Identification for Special Education and Dyslexia Requires Multiple Criteria
The Office of Special Education Programs report9 specified three essential criteria for identifying individuals with disabilities for special education: (1) students have been provided evidence-based instruction and their persistent response to this high-quality instruction is lower than expected; (2) assessment of low achievement—for example, low reading achievement that is typically determined through norm-referenced achievement tests; and (3) consideration of exclusionary criteria to ensure that low achievement is not due to another disability (e.g., intellectual disability, sensory disorder) or to environmental and contextual factors (e.g., limited English proficiency). Youngsters cannot be identified with disabilities, including dyslexia, solely based on their instructional response—although, instructional response can be used as a data source for referral and identification.10
IDEA explicitly states that children may be identified for special education only with documentation that low achievement is not the result of inadequate instruction.11 This is fleshed out in the regulations, which state12:
To ensure that underachievement in a child suspected of having a specific learning disability is not due to lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math, the group must consider, as part of the evaluation described in §§300.304 through 300.306—
(1) Data that demonstrate that prior to, or as a part of, the referral process, the child was provided appropriate instruction in regular education settings, delivered by qualified personnel; and
(2) Data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals, reflecting formal assessment of student progress during instruction, which was provided to the child’s parents.
And yet, many practitioners in special education are reluctant to exclude children despite concerns about the adequacy of core reading instruction, especially if the phonics component is incidental instead of what it should be: explicit, well organized, and integrated with other components of the reading program. However, these provisions in IDEA emerged because of concerns about the disconnection between general education and special education; they were designed to prevent inappropriate referral and placement. If a district has a special education eligibility process that is based on cognitive discrepancies, including an IQ-achievement discrepancy and patterns of strengths and weaknesses, the identification component is not directly related to instruction, isolating special education from general education. It leads to costly, unnecessary testing as well as questions about how the adequacy of instruction requirements are met, which must be added. In an MTSS model, a comprehensive assessment is still involved, but consistent with the Office of Special Education Programs consensus report,13 it focuses on instructional response data available through progress monitoring, additional norm-referenced testing of achievement levels, and assessments related to other conditions and contextual factors (e.g., limited English proficiency) that might explain low achievement.
Sharon Vaughn is the executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Teacher Education and a professor in the Learning Disabilities and Behavior Disorders program. She has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for Literacy and Learning and the Special Education Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. Jack M. Fletcher is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston, where he is also the associate vice president for research administration. A former member of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, he has earned the International Literacy Association’s Albert J. Harris Award and the International Dyslexia Association’s Samuel Torrey Orton Award. This research was supported by grant P50 HD052117 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (the authors are solely responsible for the content).
1. National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
2. G. R. Lyon et al., “Rethinking Learning Disabilities,” in Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, ed. C. E. Finn et al. (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Progressive Policy Institute, 2001), 259–287.
3. R. Bradley, L. Danielson, and D. Hallahan, eds., Identification of Learning Disabilities: Research to Practice (New York: Routledge, 2002).
4. US Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families (Washington, DC: 2002).
5. Cirino et al., “Reading Skill Components and Impairments in Middle School Struggling Readers,” Reading and Writing 26, no. 7 (2013): 1059–1086.
6. J. Quinn and R. Wagner, “Gender Differences in Reading Impairment and in the Identification of Impaired Readers: Results from a Large-Scale Study of At-Risk Readers,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 48, no. 4 (2015): 433–445.
7. Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (2004).
8. Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Pub. L. No. 114-95, 129 Stat. 1802 (2015).
9. Bradley, Danielson, and Hallahan, Identification of Learning Disabilities.
10. J. Miciak and J. Fletcher, “The Critical Role of Instructional Response for Identifying Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 53, no. 5 (2020): 343–353.
11. Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (2004); see sec. 614, (b)(5).
12. Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (2004) §300.309, Determining the Existence of a Specific Learning Disability.
13. Bradley, Danielson, and Hallahan, Identification of Learning Disabilities.
[illustrated by Jia Liu]