Implementing a Combined RTI/PBIS Model: What is considered Tier 2?



Our focus this year has been on the implementation of Tier 2 interventions within the RTI/PBIS framework. We’ve been investigating the use of writing, math and behavioral interventions within a tiered system of service delivery to determine the impact on student outcomes in these areas. It has been a complex process, especially in light of the state’s recent change in the way students with learning disabilities are identified. Idaho recently changed its SLD identification criteria to include an RTI process coupled with a comprehensive evaluation. The inclusion of the RTI process as part of the identification of SLD has led to interesting considerations about what constitutes a Tier 2 intervention and how to define adequate response. In many ways now, response to intervention is a ‘test’ – as defined by state policy now, a student who fails to respond demonstrates one of the markers of SLD. That requires a much more consistent definition of response to intervention than does a system in which RTI is used strictly for prevention.

Arguably, it has always been important to have clear definitions for Tier 2, but the connection between Tier 2 and a disability label now elevates that requirement. This is true for all states that use RTI only or RTI as a component of SLD identification (see the National RTI Center for a list of state policies). Yet few states (including Idaho) have produced guidance that clearly defines what is a Tier 2 intervention and what is adequate response as measured by progress monitoring. This is not entirely the fault of state departments of education and we don’t mean to imply that it is. For many academic areas and grade levels, there simply isn’t sufficient evidence about a number of interventions to determine that students who do not respond to those interventions are in fact, learning disabled. Similarly, the progress monitoring research is extensive in terms of its use as a formative assessment tool that informs instructional practice and is helpful in determining which students are at risk for poor outcomes; however, there is neither sufficient consensus nor evidence on establishing appropriate benchmarks, slopes, or timelines to consistently determine student responsiveness.

To complicate matters further, the district in which we are working implemented a “levels within tiers” approach to instruction. Within the RTI framework in use in this district, within Tier 1, a student may receive Level 1, 2 or 3 instruction. The levels indicate a differentiated approach, and the levels within tiers approach to RTI is widely used – it helps to emphasize to schools that every attempt to provide effective general education instruction is the most efficient, equitable, and appropriate way to support student achievement. However, it also muddies the water somewhat when making decisions about movement to Tier 2. Is small group instruction delivered at a different pace or on a focused skill but within the general education classroom Tier 1 or Tier 2? If a general education teacher pulls a small group for targeted instruction, is that Tier 1 or Tier 2? There are lots of variations on this question, but the heart of the question remains the same – at what point is instruction considered Tier 2?

Maybe some of you are thinking – does it matter? As long as students are receiving appropriate services, does it matter what we call it?  When RTI is used as a school improvement framework only (i.e. no disability determination decisions are attached to the process), then it might not matter. However, when RTI does inform (either in part, or entirely) the disability determination process, then it certainly seems like it matters, otherwise the decisions are left to the multi-disciplinary team and we have likely recreated the idiosyncratic nature of student study teams with a bit more structure to the process. Here’s a more tangible example. Recently, I was conducting a training on RTI and a teacher asked me if preferential seating was a Tier 2 intervention because her district had listed it in their RTI plan as an intervention to support student learning. Imagine if a student in that district “failed to respond” to preferential seating and this district were located in a state in which RTI only approaches to disability determination were in practice. This is an extreme example to be sure, but it highlights the potential problems with not specifying what constitutes a Tier 2 intervention and what appropriate response to that intervention should be before we consider evaluating that student for a suspected disability.

Fortunately, the National RTI center is collecting information on evidence-based interventions and their documented effect sizes when implemented with fidelity. (See the intervention tools chart on the NCRTI website). This type of information will go a long way in helping to inform these kinds of questions so that we can be more consistent in the way we identify students with learning disabilities and, as a result, more successful in treating them.
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