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Using Data to Advocate for Students with Learning Differences

Strategically using data to understand and support students with learning differences, inside and outside the classroom


Creating a classroom learning environment where all students have the ability to meet their full and unique potential requires an intentional focus on the needs of all learners – both in aggregate and as individuals. Educators spend an enormous amount of time planning for, differentiating, and assessing student learning. While grades are helpful in understanding overall progress, additional metrics like attendance, discipline, and formative assessment data (e.g., checks for understanding, exit tickets, quizzes) can provide a more comprehensive view of students’ learning and progress.

Utilizing this data can be a major lever for improving outcomes for students, specifically those with learning differences. Below are some suggested practices for using data to advocate for and improve outcomes for students with learning differences.

Step 1: Disaggregate the data. In order to understand and advocate for the needs of diverse learners, you must first understand their academic performance and experience across a variety of metrics noted above. To effectively achieve this, educators must disaggregate their data to understand clearly how students are learning, specifically in comparison to other student subgroups.

  • Disaggregate data into subgroups: Whenever possible, educators should break data down to see performance by student subgroup. In this case, educators should compare data between students with identified learning differences to those without. (Note: If a specific dataset does not include this subgroup data, educators should do their best to calculate it on their own by separating student scores based on what they know about their students’ individual learning needs. They should then consider reaching out to administration or a district technology office to advocate for this information to be included in all data.)

  • Compare the performance of subgroups: This is an opportunity to see not only how students with learning differences are performing relative to school goals, benchmarks, and expectations, but also other student subgroups. Educators should identify any differences between subgroups and trends that may exist between teachers, grades, or content areas.

Disaggregating academic data will inform educators’ perspectives of how students with learning differences are performing relative to both school and individual student goals, as well as other student subgroups.

Step 2: Celebrate and explore bright spots. Before educators dig into what needs to be adapted, they should take a moment to identify and celebrate what is going well. This will not only recognize teachers, classrooms, and students’ hard work and efforts, but will also inform their perspective on what best practices exist that can be spotlighted, replicated, or scaled.

  • Identify bright spots in the data: Reviewing and comparing disaggregated data between content/subject areas, specific classroom activities and/or learning strands will identify areas where students are performing at or above benchmark levels. Stakeholders should also specifically dig into areas where students with learning differences are outperforming other student subgroups or, if gaps are pervasive, instances in which progress has been made via shrinking discrepancies.

  • Celebrate teachers and students: Teachers and students should receive recognition for their efforts and performance, but schools should ensure they do not explicitly call attention to the students’ learning differences. Celebrations could include elements like teacher shout-outs in weekly staff meetings, recognition of certain classrooms for sustained effort during morning announcements, or notes sent home to families of individual students celebrating their growth and effort.

When looking into disaggregated data, it can be natural to jump into problem-solving around the gaps. By starting with bright spots and celebrations, educators will not only orient to what is working but will also set a tone of celebrating and affirming the meaningful progress that has already been accomplished, no matter how big or small.

Step 3: Dig into gaps in quantitative data. After celebrating what’s going well, educators should identify and get curious about the metrics that show lower performance outcomes for students with learning differences and identify places where support isn’t as effective as it needs to be. This is an opportunity to gather context and a wide set of stakeholder perspectives.

  • Review classroom practices: Identify whether IEPs are being followed, services are provided, assessments are appropriately modified, and teachers are receiving adequate support to learn differentiation practices.

  • Consider accessibility: Are accommodated materials accessible to all students that require them? Are you using the right tools? Are there major differences between the performance of students with and without learning differences with certain tools?

  • Gather input from families and students: Learn more about the experience of students with learning differences (and their families) with learning. Are the appropriate accommodations being made? Are families receiving sufficient communication from the school? Does the student feel comfortable and safe requesting accommodations and support? Gathering input from families and students might give you information about specific classroom environments, assignments, and practices; further, it can surface larger trends to address at a grade or school-wide level.

Getting curious about gaps allows you to gather a variety of information and perspectives. The more context and data you can uncover, the more comprehensive picture you’ll have about probable root causes of problems and how to meaningfully address them.

Step 4: Put a plan in place. Now that you know how students with learning differences are performing, celebrated the bright spots, took time to gather information about discrepancies in the data, you are ready to make a plan of action.

  • Adjust instruction: Based on what you learned digging into classroom practices, it’s time to clarify expectations and requirements for student supports and services. Ensure that adequate follow-up in the form of coaching, observation, meetings with interventionists, feedback, and/or accountability structures are offered to support implementation.

  • Provide professional development: If expectations are known but implementation is challenging, hold time to train teachers, as well as the coaches, paraprofessionals, and student intervention teams that support them. Training should center on specific and necessary practices like accommodating tests, creating a pull-out schedule, or even utilizing assistive technologies.

  • Set goals with students and families: Creating a plan to address concerns is an opportunity to engage students and families, starting with goal-setting. Understand what changes and outcomes students want to see, and then make a plan to measure progress with them. Engage families by identifying opportunities for ongoing partnership, soliciting their feedback regularly, and identifying regular touchpoints to check in on their student’s progress.

Making a plan to address gaps involves all stakeholders in making meaningful changes, and offering support in service of stronger and more equitable outcomes can further support students with learning differences.

Overall, by disaggregating data, analyzing and celebrating bright spots, digging into subgroup gaps, and making a plan with students and families to address concerning outcomes, educators can advocate for students with learning differences, ensuring they receive the support they need to achieve academic success.

Strategy Resources

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