Using RTI Data to Inform SLD Determination - Part 4 of a 5 Part Blog Series



The state review of specific learning disabilities (SLD) eligibility files described in the previous post in this blog series highlighted some areas that schools were going to need assistance with in order to implement the revised SLD policy effectively. In the previous post, the areas in need of training were listed in detail, but in general, they fell into two main categories:

  1. RTI: Training general education teams on how to document that the child had received generally appropriate instruction and intervention yet was not making adequate progress;
  2. Comprehensive evaluation: Training the multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) on how to conduct an individualized, comprehensive evaluation to identify the specific learning concern, and the potential underlying cause of the learning difficulty in order to inform an individualized intervention plan.

In this post, I’ll detail the efforts directed at supporting the RTI component of the process.

In general, the state review of eligibility files revealed that many schools were still learning how to effectively implement an RTI procedure to support the learning needs of their students. RTI is based on the idea of prevention—that through the delivery of a multi-tier instructional system, students’ needs can be addressed appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. When it is first noted that a student is struggling, that student can receive targeted support, most commonly in what is called “Tier 2” instruction. Ideally, a school will have a strong Tier 2 system in place, meaning, they will a) universally screen students in core academic and behavioral skills, b) identify guidelines for when a student is in need of Tier 2 support, c) have highly trained instructional staff deliver an evidence-based intervention with sufficient intensity to support the students’ learning needs, and d) monitor progress within the intervention to determine if the child has made sufficient progress to remove support, if the child is making progress but requires ongoing support, or if the child is not responding to the intervention and requires a different type of intervention or a possible referral for evaluation.

On the current SLD eligibility report, teams are asked to include information about the student’s performance on benchmarks and screenings (i.e., indicate what the benchmark score is, and then what the student’s score is) and to include data about the percentage of students in the general classroom who are meeting these targets (e.g., 84% of classmates were proficient). The idea behind this requirement is to draw an MDT’s attention to the overall efficacy of the general education instruction. In Idaho, there is no set percentage requirement before a child can be referred for special education evaluation; rather, the goal is to ensure that potential environmental and instructional concerns have been considered prior to considering a “within-child” disability. In other words, if the general education instruction isn’t effective, it is difficult to adequately determine whether a child’s learning challenges are due to a possible disability or are merely due to poor instruction.

In general, the state review indicated that for reading in the early grades (K–5), most schools were able to properly document the general education instruction efficacy. In math and writing for the early grades, it was slightly more challenging, but overall, MDTs at the elementary level effectively documented this requirement. At secondary levels, this requirement proved more challenging—but this was anticipated because many secondary schools are not yet in the habit of screening their students so, aside from general state assessment data, they did not have screening data in most areas. A targeted area of the state training is to provide support to secondary levels in implementing screening tools to identify students at risk for poor outcomes.

In Idaho’s SLD eligibility process, once a team has documented that a child is not meeting grade level performance standards and benchmarks, the next requirement is to indicate what intervention supports that student has received. The teams are asked to identify the specific area of concern for which the student is receiving Tier 2 intervention, then identify the instructional program or strategy used, along with the frequency, duration, and teacher-to-student ratio. Once again, the state does not have set parameters for these areas— in other words, there is no “state approved” list of intervention programs, there is no requirement in policy saying that the child must receive 30 minutes of intervention for 5 days per week for 9 weeks prior to being exited from Tier 2. Rather, the goal is to draw the team’s attention to the data and to consider the instructional strategies that have been implemented to date to address the child’s learning needs. When a team can document that there is a strong connection between the child’s academic performance, the attempted intervention, and the corresponding data, the result is a more informed evaluation process and a stronger assurance that the child is not experiencing learning difficulties because of a lack of appropriate instruction.

Our state review highlighted the Tier 2 documentation requirement as one of the most challenging for school teams. First, in documenting the intervention, many teams included things such as “10 minutes with Mrs. Smith,” or “additional reading practice,” or “flashcards,” or “preferential seating.” While it is true that there is no state-approved list of intervention programs, there also is not an “anything goes as Tier 2” list—it is in direct opposition to the goal of Tier 2 and the focus on the use of evidence-based instructional strategies to support struggling learners. A more specific example might be helpful to explain this issue.

As part of our RTI implementation efforts, I had the good fortune to work with an elementary school that was having difficulty with its reading program. In general, many of their students were able to meet grade level performance targets in reading in the general education program, but students who were identified as at-risk on their screeners remained at risk and, in some cases, even “got worse” despite receiving Tier 2 intervention. In some grades, the at-risk population of students represented about 15%–18% of the entire grade—too high a percentage to reasonably conclude that all at-risk students were students with disabilities. So we examined their Tier 2 instructional program more closely. At this particular school, Tier 2 consisted of reading instruction that was “more of the same but more slowly”—so students were being exposed to the same reading instruction that they were receiving in the general education classroom, albeit it at a slightly slower pace and in a slightly reduced class size (i.e., in 1st grade, 1:15 instead of 1:25). When we examined instruction more closely, we found some mismatch between the children’s learning needs and the general education instructional program and recommended that teachers use a direct instruction method for students placed in Tier 2. The instructional change was implemented in February, and after 9 weeks of instruction, we found that of the 15 first grade students who were receiving Tier 2, 14 of them were now making progress that surpassed the growth rates of their peers in Tier 1 only. When the students returned for second grade, many of them encountered significant summer loss and were placed in Tier 2 instruction that again included a direct instruction method to reading, and now all but 1 of 15 students are meeting average grade level performance. The one student who isn’t at grade level has made some progress, but at a rate that is very slow and inconsistent. She is being referred for special education evaluation.

So RTI, when well-implemented, can prevent “instructional casualties”—those students who are not learning disabled but who do require some more intense, intentional instruction than they receive in general education. Without the Tier 2 system, these 14 students were on the path to referral and eventual identification as having learning disabilities. It is not only detrimental to students to be referred when not required, but it also takes away from students who truly require highly specialized and individualized special education instruction. Schools do not have unlimited resources, so overtaxing a special education teacher’s caseload with students whose needs could be met in an effective Tier 2 system means that the teacher is then unable to give full attention and support to those students who do require an individualized program.

All this is to highlight that the rationale for requiring teams to document the Tier 2 process as part of the eligibility assessment is to prevent the scenario as outlined above—which, as we are discovering, is sadly more common than one would like to think. And this is not to blame schools. Teachers work hard under very trying conditions and with limited resources and with competing requirements, but what our work through the SLD review and subsequent training has emphasized is that with some support, many schools are eager to and can improve their tiered service delivery to better meet the needs of their students.

This example has highlighted the advantages of including RTI as part of the SLD eligibility process, but there are also concerns, even when RTI is well implemented. Perhaps the primary concern is that RTI has essentially replaced the “wait to fail” discrepancy model with a “watch them fail” model in which students who likely require special education services are being placed in holding patterns, or what I’ve heard called “Tier 2 purgatory,” rather than being referred for evaluation. While it is a valid concern, the reality is that (at least in Idaho) there are no state-mandated intervals or time periods for a child to receive Tier 2 intervention before he or she can be referred for special education evaluation. This was intentional when the policy was designed because although there is research that generally supports that interventions should last between 8 and 12 weeks, the research base is far from conclusive, and there has been little research to test the limits of this guideline—in other words, can we predict at 4 weeks which students will still not respond at Week 8? There is some very promising and exciting early research on the use of dynamic assessment to predict responders, and this will certainly help to eliminate some of the “watch them fail” concerns once these tools are ready to implement, but in the meantime, teachers and school teams need to rely considerably on their professional judgment to interpret data and make sound instructional decisions for students. As the example above about the first grade students is meant to illustrate, the systematic collection of data in the Tier 2 process and the requirement to report the collective progress of students receiving Tier 2 support is what helped the school team identify the need for a more effective Tier 2 program. Now that this model is in place, they will be better able to identify when a student is not responding to Tier 2, and because they have assurance that they have an effective instructional system, the needs of the nonresponsive student can be met more efficiently and, ultimately, more effectively.

The state SLD team in Idaho devised an intensive set of trainings to support many more schools in the design and implementation of an effective Tier 2 system. These trainings focus on developing the infrastructure to support a Tier 2 system, to include how to design and use a data management system, how to structure a Tier 2 team, and how to identify, plan, schedule, and deliver Tier 2 instruction. These trainings also go in depth as to how to do this for reading and math. To date, the response to these trainings has been positive. Our next round of state level data collection will help us determine their effectiveness.

In the final post in this blog series, I’ll review our approach to supporting MDTs in conducting comprehensive evaluations that are consistent with the revised state SLD policy.
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Low SES
Thank you for this blog on such a challenging and debated topic. My issues are regarding the significant academic need of schools with very high rates of students from low socioeconomic households and communities. While we can and do attempt to differentiate students based on comparisons with similar peers within the same school (where most students are below proficiency) and compared to other Title I schools there remain unresolved issues. While many Title I schools have documented increased progress with implementation of the response to intervention/multitiered system of supports model, the overall proficiency level of Title 1 schools seldom compares to average or higher SES schools. School grades (such as an A) are very misleading indicators. Comparing Title I schools to overall district and state academic norms would be an unfair way of determining quality core instruction. Once again, lower SES schools have significantly lower levels of proficient students compared to higher SES schools. Even with continued progress of the Title 1 schools the gap does not close due to many factors reported in the literature related to economic disadvantage. Ruling out environment and instruction is extremely difficult.

I have been and continue to be a proponent of a response intervention model; however, I've seen and heard of many unintended negative consequences due to this model as a requirement for identification. There have been stories of schools who have refused to assess and determine eligibility for students because of their lack of knowledge and confidence with implementation of a response to intervention model and identification compliancy requirements related to response to intervention. Professionally, I deem it necessary to conduct a targeted psychological evaluation for children that we are assessing to determine eligibility and appropriate interventions. Assessment of specific academic and cognitive patterns, not discrepancies, are the most important pieces that I have seen for differentiating children who have disabilities and for those who do not. While we attempt to ensure fidelity of response to intervention (which at times appears futile), the more objective components of a psychological evaluation provides ostensibly more validity, reliability, and consistency. I feel this is important for all students but especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (of course you must take into consideration the issues relating to possible bias within cognitive assessments). I do not believe I have found all of the answers but I am confident that relying on response to intervention to rule out instruction especially in the face of economic disadvantage is extremely flawed. Not because response to intervention is flawed but because systems are flawed, communities are flawed, districts are flawed, states are flawed, assessments are flawed, and people are flawed.

I like the idea of a feedback system that your state has developed and I'm very curious if in the long run this will lead to better and more consistent methods for accurately identifying and intervening with students who have learning problems and disabilities through comprehensive assessment. I'm especially curious to see how this will work with Title I or disadvantaged schools. While my state is a "full RTI State" there is no feedback system to try to improve the reliability of identification and ensure any consistency statewide.