Prior to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, school districts used a “discrepancy model” to identify students with learning disabilities. If the gap—or discrepancy—between a student’s ability (e.g., IQ scores) and achievement exceeded a certain level, he was classified as learning disabled.
With IDEA 2004, school districts are no longer required to use IQ testing as a basis for classification. Instead, they are encouraged to implement a Response to Intervention (RTI) model.
“When the acronym RTI is used, what we’re really talking about is response to instruction.” Jack Fletcher, PhD
With RTI, students whose disabilities are attributable to instructional factors are remediated with appropriate instruction in the regular classroom. Students whose learning difficulties persist despite appropriate instruction are referred to Special Education for more individualized, intensive interventions.
Under the traditional discrepancy model, students must be failing for interventions to be considered. Consequently, at-risk students do not get the instruction they need at the time when it would be most effective. By the time they are identified, they are often so far behind that full remediation is unlikely.
Studies have shown that 70 to 90 percent of students at-risk for reading difficulties in kindergarten through second grade learn to read in the average range within a year with appropriate instruction. With early intervention, the proportion of at-risk students drops from approximately 20 percent to 2 to 6 percent.
In a three-tier model the process unfolds according to the student’s response:
- Tier I provides enhanced general education classroom instruction for all students—not just those at risk.
- Tier II offers more intensive, typically small-group intervention for those who have not responded adequately to Tier I efforts.
- Tier III refers those students who do not make adequate progress despite appropriate instruction to Special Ed for a more intensive, science-based reading intervention in a small group or one-on-one.
A New Frontier
RTI represents a radical change in how we deliver services: instead of saying, “if there’s a disorder, let’s determine the educational need” it posits “there’s a problem here; let’s figure out why.” Instead of simply establishing educational need, specific barriers to learning are identified. Comprehensive evaluations are still required, but it’s typically a different kind of evaluation because considerable data has been collected.
RTI is a multi-year, multi-stage process—not a “wait to fail” system based on performance at a single point in time. General and special education interventions are closely aligned into a single, tightly integrated system, as all students are general education students first. Students receive increasingly intensive and differentiated interventions, with the response to each intervention recorded.
A student with learning disabilities is one who does not respond adequately to quality instruction; he is hard to teach, but not unable to learn.
This information is based on a keynote address delivered by child neuropsychologist Jack M. Fletcher, PhD, at the “Response to Instruction” Summer Institute, co-sponsored by the Haskins Literacy Initiative and the Connecticut branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Dr. Fletcher is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston and works on issues related to learning and attention problems.