Understanding the dyslexic drop-out: why students with learning disabilities graduate at a lower rate than their peers

Executive Summary

There are mixed messages about dyslexia. It is simultaneously true that 50% of NASA employees (Dyslexia Awareness) and 85% of prison inmates (Coalition for Literacy) are dyslexic. And, while researchers estimate that 1 in 5 Americans has a form of the learning disability (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity), it does not play a prominent role in discussions of education policy or practice. Recent waves of activism in the learning disability (LD) community has promoted the message of untapped success for students with disabilities like dyslexia. They have heralded Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci as their proof, identifying known traits which indicate some level of dyslexia. Many modern-day celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Keira Knightley, have also advocated for the rights of students with learning disabilities by talking about their struggles in the education system. In 2012, The New York Times published an article titled “The Upside of Dyslexia,” which advocated for research that found “people with dyslexia have skills that are superior to those of typical readers.” (Paul, 2012) However, while the research she references provides promising knowledge to those with the disability, it does not incorporate the attached social and educational challenges. Having dyslexia, or another learning disability, is still stigmatized and misunderstood in many school districts, and many public schools do not have the resources or knowledge to educate students that require additional accommodations adequately. These combined forces have contributed to a staggering drop-out rate for students with special educational needs. However, little attention is given to accurately understanding and attacking the problem. While other research has identified the reasons why students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are susceptible to dropping out of high school, this paper will contribute information about the difficulties of students with learning disabilities and the reasons why they are prone to join the drop-out epidemic.


In 2013, data from the Department of Education indicated that students with disabilities only graduated from high school at a rate of 62% compared to the national average of 81%. (Diplomas Count, 2015) This data encompasses a broad range of disabilities, not just dyslexia, but it is an important starting point for understanding the linkage between disabilities and dropout rates.[1] Dyslexia is exceptionally common – around half of individuals with learning disabilities have dyslexia – and is related to other forms of learning and behavioral difficulties. There are known links between ADHD and dyslexia, as well as issues with executive functioning, slow processing, auditory processing and visual processing (Dyslexia Research Institute). The National Center for Education Statistics states that, in the 2012-2013 graduation year (the same year examined in the data above), students with registered disabilities made up 12.9% of total enrollment (NCES, 2016). 14.8% of these disabilities could be identified as physical disabilities, whereas the other 85.2% incorporate a learning difficulty. (NCES, 2016)

Figure 1, Data from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014). Chapter 2.

In the data set provided to the NCES, the categories of disability are broad. Even this refined data set does not provide much more information about the number of students experiencing learning disabilities in high school, nor does it indicate whether or not health complications and physical disabilities contribute to the dropout statistics. The lack of answers here should provoke more research. But, given the lack of students with disabilities in higher education – researchers predict only 34% of students with dyslexia will graduate from college within eight years (NLTS2, 2011) – there have been few people who have been paying enough attention to notice and ask questions. Therefore, the study of dropout rates for students with disabilities must proceed with insufficient data.

Even without complete data, there is still striking evidence that students with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, are dropping out of school at much higher rates than other demographic subgroups. Figure 2 shows that, except students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities graduate at the lowest rate.

Figure 2, Diplomas Count 2015

Much attention is given to the disparities between race when it comes to drop-out rates, and it is evident from Figure 2 why this would be the case. This research can be beneficial in understanding the dropout rate for students with disabilities, for two particular reasons. First, the theories about why students drop out of high school point to trends which exist for students with learning disabilities as well, even in the manifest differently. Second, low-income students and students of color are referred to behavioral and learning specialists at a much higher rate than their peers. These two reasons can help form a greater understanding of why the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities continues to be high even when there is improvement elsewhere. The data from which this graph was created also divides by state, indicating state disparities in the education of students with disabilities. In all states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was lower than the state-wide graduation rate. Rural states tended to have the greatest difference between graduation rates. Most notably, in Mississippi, students with disabilities only graduated at a rate of 23%, compared to a state-wide rate of nearly 80% (Diplomas Count 2015). Furthermore, the states with greater gaps in graduation rates already are known for their under-resourced public school systems, which would also imply that their resources for students with learning disabilities are likely also below par. These hypotheses require further research but are certainly worth considering.

Figure 3, Diplomas Count 2015

Before delving into some of the reasons why these students may be experiencing this dropout rate more than their peers, one must clarify the definition of a learning disability. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term “specific learning disability” is used to identify a disorder with the following description.

A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. (20 U.S.C. § 1401 (30))

Specific learning disorders also appear in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was last revised in 2013. The DSM-V description provides another way to identify the disabilities.

Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing, or mathematics. The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living. Specific learning disorder is diagnosed through a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational, and family history, reports of test scores and teacher observations, and response to academic interventions. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

As these descriptions determine, experiencing a learning disability is neither a choice nor a sure indicator of intelligence. However, not much is known about their origin. Progress has been made in determining specific genetic factors which can contribute to learning disabilities, explaining similarities among members of the same family. Other research suggests prenatal or maternal injury can be a contributing factor, as can traumatic injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to substances like lead (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014). Inadequate teaching cannot cause learning disabilities, nor are learning disabilities a prescription for a negative schooling experience. The research proves exactly the opposite.

Learning disabilities are not a prescription for failure. With the right kinds of instruction, guidance, and support, there are no limits to what individuals with LD can achieve. (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014)

Despite this message, students with learning disabilities continue to drop out of high school and struggle in the public-school system.

Evidence: Why students with disabilities drop out

It is not necessarily the learning disability itself that causes the high drop out rate. As Annie Paul argued in her New York Times opinion article, “The Upside of Dyslexia,” many gifts come from the dyslexic brain. However, the issue comes when teachers do not know how to hone these gifts. New York City public school teacher Mary Beth Crosby Carroll wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to “The Upside of Dyslexia.” In her letter, she pondered, “it makes you wonder how many scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and writers we have lost because they failed early on in school and no one knew how to tap into their talents and teach them how to read.” This is the unfortunate reality for many students with dyslexia. They drop out before they can realize their potential. Dr. Robert Balfanz, in his research at John Hopkins University and coiner of the term “dropout factories,” identified four main reasons why students drop out of high school. His research incorporates all students and focuses more on race than on students with learning disabilities, but his framework can be used in this case as well.

  1. Life Events
  2. Fade Outs – those who stop seeing a reason for coming to school
  3. Push Outs – those who are encouraged, some more subtly than others, to withdraw from school. This can be for a myriad of reasons, but more often than not, it’s because a child is perceived to be “difficult, dangerous or detrimental.”
  4. Failing to Succeed

These reasons interact and overlap, and are not designed to be prescriptive. The written and researched experiences of students with dyslexia indicate that they fall into the latter three categories. This next portion of the paper will look at these three categories and examine why students with learning disabilities find themselves in these categories, and determine whether there is anything that can be done to solve these problems.

Fade Outs

Diagnosis, or the lack of it, in public schools remains a major problem, and is a primary contributor to students “fading out.” The Dyslexia Research Institute estimates that although 1 in 5 Americans likely has dyslexia, only 5% are diagnosed. Even fewer are diagnosed during their elementary education years. So, by the time students reach high school, they have learned poor coping mechanisms for their dyslexia and struggle in silence, or they continue to struggle academically and incur low self-esteem as a result. In Family Education, a blog site for parents, Betsy Van Dorn provides tips for parents of high school students with dyslexia. She writes that one of the biggest problems for getting students diagnosed with dyslexia is that “distractibility, dreaminess and lack of motivation are age-typical behaviors, [and] it’s not always easy to separate real learning problems from adolescent angst.” (Van Dorn) The challenge of not being recognized and appropriately diagnosed can build up stress within a student that can lead to apathy towards their education and thus cause them to fade out. This is not an issue of schools being ill-intentioned or intentionally bias towards students with learning disabilities. The lack of diagnosis can occur for lots of reasons.

Most schools are not able to administer a complete language processing evaluation, and outsourcing it can be expensive. Therefore, referring someone to a testing center requires confidence from the part of the teacher, or the parent. Teachers need to be sure that they can accurately discern the difference between a student with a learning disability and a student who is struggling to keep up, or a student who will learn in time. It is not always the case that the dyslexic student will be the one at the bottom of the class, as their academic challenges may manifest in different ways. Schools that do provide some form of evaluation are not always able to formalize a diagnosis. Sandie Blackley, speech-language pathologists and co-founder of Lexercise, wrote in a blog post some of the reasons why these forms of evaluation are insufficient. She writes that the lack of diagnosis can make it difficult for teachers, parents and the student themselves to understand what their specific differences are, and how to move forward. The standard measure of evaluation in public schools, from the psychoeducational perspective, is to measure IQ and academic achievement and determine if there is a gap. The difference is interpreted as a learning disability, for it indicates a difficulty in expressing one’s IQ in achievement. However, the evaluation will not provide a course of study, and may not even identify all students. This process is lengthy and demands a lot on the student. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some students would choose to drop out of school or remain undiagnosed.

The “fade out” phenomenon can be linked to lack of diagnosis because of the challenging experience it creates for a student in the classroom. In an article published by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, teacher and mother Kyle Redford explained how the dyslexia diagnosis helped her son embrace his education.

My son’s reaction to the dyslexic label convinced me that my reservations were a form of educational elitism. He was delighted with the new word; it helped to contain his condition. His learning challenges could no longer be confused with generalized stupidity. (Redford)

Redford’s story is not unique. Other stories cite newfound confidence after a diagnosis, better performance in school and a better self-awareness (Pearce). Even in those to whom the diagnosis evokes a false sense of shame, the ability to form a strategy of their own with the knowledge of their dyslexia allows for success. The absence of this knowledge can be demoralizing and prevents students from understanding their potential, especially when it may look different from their peers.

Push Outs

The issue of students being forced out of the public-school system is most frequently discussed in regards to issues of racism. Black students are suspended from K-12 public schools are a much higher rate than their peers, indicating a longstanding pervading problem of institutional racism in many school districts across the United States. (Smith & Harper, 2015) While the issue of suspensions and disproportionate discipline to racial minorities remains relevant, similar tactics are used in pushing out students with learning disabilities, a topic which continues to be relatively under-discussed. However, while racism is the driving factor between the disproportionate expulsion of Black and Latino students, a lack of understanding drives out many students who have a learning disability. They may ‘act out’ more frequently than their peers, but the underlying cause is certainly more than just a tendency towards truancy.

Students with learning disabilities often become frustrated with their inability to learn in school. Some become behavior problems to divert attention from their academic performance; others try to behave perfectly and hope that adults won’t notice them.” (Levine & Osbourne, 1989)

In some instances, as in Levine and Osbourne’s example, there is a choice made. Truant activity is a way to get attention and be noticed by members of staff; it is a way to present the image of not caring about one’s education. For, as high school social environments would dictate, it is easier to be failing if you give off the impression that you don’t care. In other instances, resisting instruction is a defense mechanism to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to read or partake in ordinary academic activities. But, for other students, acting differently from the rest of the class isn’t necessarily a choice. For students with ADHD, behavioral problems may stem from the inability to focus in the classroom. Genuine curiosity may be construed as rude or intrusive behavior. Even in dyslexia, which does not have any obvious behavioral symptoms, there is evidence of truant behavior. Dahle and Knivsberg conducted a study of behavioral issues in children with dyslexia against children without dyslexia. In their study, teachers reported more instances of aggression, hyperactivity, and delinquency in the dyslexic students, “indicating that children with dyslexia may use overt behaviors as an avoidance or coping strategy when faced with difficult tasks in public environments.” (Dahle & Knivsberg, 2014).

Regardless of the reason, however, suspension rates for students with disabilities is high. Research from The Civil Rights Project at the University of California found that “for all racial groups combined, more than 13% of students with disabilities were suspended. This is approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.” (Losen & Gillespie, 2012) For students of color, this number is even higher. These students were also more likely to be suspended multiple times instead of just once, with one out of every four Black K-12 students suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 academic year. The interaction between race and disabilities is sobering, especially in light of federal legislation which is designed to protect students with disabilities from this kind of disciplinary discrimination. The study from The Civil Rights Project asked the important question: are the suspensions justified due to misbehavior, or are they discrimination? This question is particularly hard to answer in regards to students with disabilities because often their natural behavior, as determined by their disability, conflicts with the disciplinary standards of the school.

For students who have not been diagnosed, disciplinary action becomes difficult to understand and comprehend. Especially in students who are making less conscious choices about their activity, the act of being reprimanded or suspended devalues education. In line with the students who fade out without disciplinary action, the value of education is reduced when students feel like they are being disciplined for who they are, instead of actions they did wrong. This does not excuse dangerous or harmful behavior but poses a Band-Aid solution to something that could be better addressed with more information about learning differences and disabilities.

Failing to Succeed

Academic failure is the most stereotypical problem of the dyslexic student within the public-school system, especially in the last decade, and has been measured with more scrutiny since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. The law, signed into law by President George W. Bush, demanded higher standards of all students before they graduated high school. According to the Act, all students should pass the same benchmark of academic standards. Given the size of states and the discrepancy of education systems across one state, the standards were determined and measured by performance on standardized tests. The importance of these tests developed a high-stakes testing culture, as schools with insufficient test scores were threatened with closure. For schools with high numbers of students with disabilities, this posed a problem. Students with learning disabilities were supposed to take the same test and meet the same standard as the other students in the school. In the 2009 reading assessment for twelfth graders, 64 percent of students with disabilities tested below basic proficiency compared to 24 percent of students without disabilities. (NCES, 2009). The rate of success is consistently much lower for students with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.

Many children and adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities report their schooling experience as incredibly difficult, as they often felt “deeply humiliated when asked to read. They reported being ridiculed and bullied because of their reading difficulties.” (Rose, 2009). Boyes et. al, in 2017, published an article outlining the relationship between learning disabilities and mental health problems, many of which emerged from this feeling of shame. Given the intensity of high-stakes testing, the pressure to do well can feel all-encompassing to a student with a disability. Lacking self-esteem can remain a barrier for other disciplines as well. Even if a student with dyslexia shows promise elsewhere, their experiences in other classrooms may hinder their belief that they can succeed. As Richard Dowson writes, “failure in school can result in depression and a fear of school. The student dreads going to school. Who can blame him? Except for a chance to clown around with friends, school is a hostile place where the dyslexic does not experience academic success.” (Dowson) Psychological research finds that these kinds of experience normalize negative self-worth and self-esteem, so much so that dropping out becomes an attractive alternative to continued negative experiences. When the failure to succeed is combined with disciplinary action or a feeling of being misunderstood by peers and teachers, it is unsurprising that many students with learning disabilities drop out of school.

Conclusion: The Answer?

As the evidence above shows, there are many significant problems for students with learning disabilities in the public school education system. Not all of them can be solved overnight or with federal policy. The major shift that needs to occur is one of greater understanding of learning disabilities. Educators need to be able to have the means and knowledge to recognize a learning disability in an individual, or at least be able to discern when a student should be referred for further testing. It is possible that the limited access to comprehensive evaluations is blocking a lot of this understanding, and therefore measures need to be taken to create a better system for evaluating and diagnosing students. These tests need to be inexpensive or subsidized by governing authorities as opposed to the school so that teachers and parents can provide comprehensive care to their students with learning disabilities. This care should be specific to the needs of the children and altered from the traditional route if necessary. Having a greater understanding of learning disabilities through better training and continual support will allow teachers to be able to handle the difference in education and help the student better. However, while better understanding from the standpoint of an educator may help a student with a learning disability, more research still needs to be done about the specifics of dyslexia before a full solution can be determined. There is a dearth of literature on the experience of dyslexic students at school, and even less literature which talks about the experience of people with dyslexia outside of the education system. It is well known that students who drop out of school are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be unemployed, but little attention is given to how learning disabilities factor into these issues.

But, while this paper has outlined many of the logical reasons why a student may choose to drop out of school, the real problem that will likely continue is the feelings of shame and humiliation that pervade the school experiences of students with learning disabilities. These moments often do come from a lack of understanding from peers and educators, but also from an educational system that has narrowed its focus to standardized testing and proficiency in reading and math. Until these systems begin to become more flexible in their measurements of intelligence, students with learning disabilities will continue to be put to one side and the epidemic of the dyslexic dropout will only just continue.



Thank you to Professor Debs for allowing me to write a paper that allowed me to learn so much more about what it means to be dyslexic, and for making me all the more grateful for my teachers and family members who allowed me to thrive in the education system instead of drop out. And, thanks to my fiancé Andrew Bean for the M&Ms. I needed them all. Thank you to Alison Levosky, Brian Pok and Julie Zhu for putting up with me and my GIFs, and to Julie (again) and Emily Patton for their edits.


Works Cited

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[1] Some states provide more specific data, whereas others do not, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of the specific breakdown of this data nationwide.