The National Cooperative Growth Study includes growth data on more the 24,000 children in the United States and Canada who have been treated with growth hormone (GH). To determine whether dysregulation of GH release causes growth failure in children, we initiated the National Cooperative Growth Study substudy II to evaluate the diagnostic utility of serially sampled GH levels and to determine whether those patterns were responsible for the low growth rates in certain subsets of short children and whether children in any of the diagnostic categories would respond to GH therapy. A total of 3744 subjects whose mean height standardized for their chronological age was -2.8 SD and whose pretreatment growth rate was 4.2 cm/yr had complete 12-hour data sets-- serial samples obtained in a 12-hour overnight period. Pulsatile characteristics of GH release were assessed with the cluster algorithm. There was a virtually complete overlap of the GH pulsatile characteristics between control subjects and short children, but the insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) levels were markedly lower in the short children, suggesting impairment in the GH-IGF-I axis. THe growth response to administered GH showed only very weak correlations with the various cluster-derived parameters. Our results indicate that one must look beyond the release of GH to find an explanation for the short statures and low IGF-I levels in the subsets of children with idiopathic short stature.