In recent years, the use of Response to Intervention (RTI) by schools has become a topic of controversy. This can be traced back to the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), when the law was changed to reflect new standards for identifying and educating children with learning disabilities. The purpose of RTI was to encourage schools to identify students facing difficulties early on and to provide appropriate instruction in order to prevent the unnecessary referral of children for special education services.
Many parents and advocates complain that the RTI process sometimes serves as an excuse for schools to delay the evaluation and referral of students who may need special education services.
Responding to those concerns, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued rules clarifying that under no circumstances should RTI prevent parents from requesting an evaluation or seeking special education services for their child.
The DOE further noted that RTI must include research-based data collection using “brief, efficient, repeatable testing” as well as parental notification regarding the data to be collected, the methodology used for improving their child’s learning, and the parent’s right to request an evaluation.
Parents are entitled to see all data and methodology being used in their student’s RTI process, and can make a formal request for this information at any time if the school has not already offered it.
Parents should also be aware that, under the law, RTI must minimally include:
- Appropriate instruction by qualified personnel in a general education setting
- Screenings for all students in the general education setting to identify those who are “at risk” (i.e. not making academic progress at expected rates)
- Instruction matched to student need with increasing levels of targeted intervention
- Repeated assessment of student achievement (at least three times per year)
- Application of this information to decisions about changes in student goals, instruction and/or services
- Written notification to parents when a student requires an intervention beyond general education.
RTI should be implemented using a “three-tiered” approach. (Different states have different guidelines and timeframes for implementing the tiered approach to RTI):
Tier 1: Core Instruction
This is intended for all students, with many states mandating that it occur for one school year, repeated each year from K-4th grade. Not all states require a full school year.
In Tier 1, the general education teacher provides primary intervention to all students through “variable and flexible grouping formats in the general education setting.” However, once a student is identified as “at risk”—regardless of when this occurs during the year—that student must be transitioned to RTI Tier 2 immediately. This is a common point of confusion for parents, and even for schools. While Tier 1 screenings “repeat” from K-4th grade for students who have not been identified as “at risk,” this does not mean that the process “reboots” every year for students who have been identified as “at risk” and should therefore have been transitioned to Tier 2 in a timely fashion.
Tier 2: Supplemental Intervention
This is usually intended for the roughly 10-15% of students who are not making adequate progress, and is “short term,” lasting from 8 to 20 weeks in most states.
Tier 2 intervention is provided by skilled, trained, and knowledgeable personnel to students who were identified as “at risk” during Tier 1, and usually occurs both inside and outside the general education classroom for 20-30 minutes, 3-4 times per week.
Tier 3: Customized Intervention
This is intended for the roughly 1-2% of students who are not responding to Tier 2 intervention, and is also a “short term” intervention, lasting from 8 to 20 weeks in most states. Tier 3 intervention must be provided by highly trained, skilled, and knowledgeable school personnel who are capable of providing specialized intervention, usually outside of the general education classroom for 30-60 minutes, 5 times per week.
For parents, it is important to note these timeframes and to identify the specific timeframes used in their state, as use of the RTI process to delay a student’s evaluation or referral for special education services is strictly forbidden under the IDEA.
One of the inherent difficulties in the RTI process is that it is utilized inconsistently, with different school districts utilizing different frameworks, and in some cases failing to follow federal or state guidelines.
With the exception of variations in the timelines used for implementing the “three-tiered” RTI approach, the guidelines discussed in this article are federally mandated and schools should not be deviating from them. This is particularly true with regard to the misuse of RTI as a delay tactic for evaluating or referring students.
RTI is meant to supplement and improve the educational tools available to students with specific learning disabilities, not to undermine the purpose of the IDEA. Parents should be encouraged to check their individual state’s timelines for the three-tiered RTI approach (usually available online). However, in doing so parents should remain clear that these timeframes must never be cited by schools as a rationale for delaying a child’s right to be evaluated or referred for special education services.
Matt Saleh, is a Research Faculty member at Cornell University’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability and a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar through the U.S. Department of State.