The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) and its implementing federal regulations (2006) significantly changed the way students suspected of having specific learning disabilities (SLD) can be identified and found eligible for special education.


Specifically, under IDEA 2004, states may no longer require school districts to use a discrepancy model (a comparison of a student’s academic achievement and intellectual ability) when determining eligibility under the SLD category. Furthermore, states must allow (but not necessarily require) the use of “a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention”—commonly known as Response to Intervention or RTI. Lastly, states may also allow the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has SLD.


Subsequently, all 50 states issued regulations for the identification of SLD. As reported in an exhaustive review of states’ SLD and RTI guidance (Hauerwas, Brown, & Scott, 2013), all states make mention of RTI in their regulations and a growing number include the collection and analysis of screening, progress-monitoring, and instructional-adequacy data as a required step in identifying whether a student has SLD (see Table 1).


This toolkit seeks to provide information specifically on an SLD identification process emanating from an RTI service-delivery framework that is in compliance with the specific language of the federal regulations found at 34 C.F.R. §300.307–300.311 and is informed by the work done to date by several states that have moved to such a process.



  This toolkit does not provide information on the other two allowable options for identification, which are a pattern of strengths and weaknesses and alternative, research-based procedures.



This toolkit provides guidance on meeting the requirements of each criterion specified in federal regulations:


  • CRITERION 1: Failure to meet age- or grade-level state standards in one of eight areas when provided appropriate instruction.
  • CRITERION 2: Lack of sufficient progress in response to scientific, research-based intervention.
  • CRITERION 3: Findings are not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, or motor disability, an intellectual disability,* emotional disturbance, cultural factors, environmental or economic disadvantage, or limited English proficiency (LEP).
  • CRITERION 4: Underachievement is not due to lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math.
  • CRITERION 5: Observation of the student learning environment documents academic performance and behavior in areas of difficulty.
  • CRITERION 6: Specific documentation for eligibility determination, including a requirement that parents are notified about instructional strategies, progress monitoring, and the right to request an evaluation.



The toollkit also includes case studies of several states already implementing an RTI-based SLD identification process. These case studies provide useful information to assist other states moving toward an RTI-based process. Response to Intervention as a Means to an End: Colorado’s Bold Action to Create a System of Education for All Children provides information about the process used by the Colorado Department of Education, the associated outcomes of the their work, they challenges experienced, and the team’s advice to other SEAs. Case studies featuring work being done in Florida, Kansas, and Pennsylvania will be available in coming weeks.


As with all substantial changes to laws and regulations, the policy guidance on changes to the SLD identification procedures in IDEA 2004 continues to evolve. The Online Tool includes a summary of guidance documents involving RTI for eligibility determination.


Table 1:  Summary of State's Regulations and Guidance Regarding RTi in SLD Criteria



For an RTI-based process to work well, it must be implemented in a systemic framework. A multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) is that framework. For maximum benefit, the following essential components of an MTSS must be implemented with fidelity and in a rigorous manner:
  • High-quality, scientific, research-based classroom instruction. All students receive high-quality, research-based instruction in the general education classroom
  • Ongoing student assessment. Universal screening and progress monitoring provide information about a student’s level of achievement and learning rate, both individually and in comparison with the peer group. Throughout the RTI process, student progress is monitored frequently to examine student achievement and gauge the effectiveness of the curriculum.
  • Data-driven decision making. Student data are used as part of a collaborative, problem-solving process when determining which students need closer monitoring or intervention. Decisions made regarding students’ instructional needs are based on multiple data points taken in context over time.
  • Tiered instruction/intervention. A multi-tier approach is used to efficiently differentiate academic and behavioral instruction/intervention for all students. The model incorporates increasing intensities of instruction (time and focus) offering specific, research-based interventions matched to student needs.
  • Family–school partnership. MTSS provides the framework for an effective family–school partnership. RTI is an opportunity to bring about meaningful change in family–school relationships, allowing for the creation of engaged partnerships between educators and families through collaborative, structured problem-solving efforts based on the sharing of information, goals, and responsibility (Reschly, 2009).

While the U.S. Department of Education does not endorse any one particular RTI service delivery framework, the Office of Special Education Programs has provided guidance regarding the essential components that must be present when identification occurs as part of the RTI process. It is important to remember that the procedures for identifying children with specific learning disabilities (§§300.307–311) are in addition to the general evaluation and eligibility requirements of the IDEA federal regulations found at §§300.301–300.306. For more information, see Essential Components of RTI When Used for SLD Eligibility in Cautions When Using an RTI-Based SLD Identification Process.





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