Education Week - February 15, 2017 - 6
RTI May Fall Short in Flagging Certain Students
reported as soft spot
By Christina A. Samuels
As a method of organizing efforts
to help students who are struggling
academically, response to intervention has seen widespread adoption.
But as an improved method of identifying students with learning disabilities, RTI shows far less clear
benefits, researchers are finding.
The RTI instructional model is
designed to identify students in
need of extra assistance and provide them targeted and researchbased lessons, or interventions. In
the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress said
that school districts were permitted
to use a student's response to such
interventions as part of an evaluation process for specific learning
disabilities, the largest disability
But the federal government declined to tell districts and states
exactly how such a process should
work, saying that was the role of
local educators to determine. And
states have also tended to take a
hands-off approach at giving directives to individual districts.
The result, according to surveys
of district and state special education leaders being highlighted this
week: a wide variation across districts on several important issues,
such as when parents are notified
that their children are receiving
intensive services through an RTI
model, how long a student must
receive interventions before being
referred for a comprehensive evaluation, and whether any data are reported to the state so that officials
can spot potential areas of concern.
"The problem is the variability in
trying to get schools and districts,
and districts and states, in communication with each other," said Tina
M. Hudson, an assistant professor
of special education at East Tennessee State University and one of the
researchers who conducted the survey of state and district-level special education administrators. "We
need more of a unified approach to
Robert G. McKenzie, a professor
of special education at the University of Kentucky, is a co-author on
the work. The two are scheduled
to present their findings at the
Learning Disabilities Association of
America convention this week.
Lack of Policies
Fifty-eight percent of special
education district leaders reported
to Hudson and McKenzie that
their school system had a policy
or recommended practice on how
long students could spend in a
RTI model before being referred
for a comprehensive evaluation or
deemed to need special education.
But the policies and practices varied widely. Districts reported that
students spent on average 50 school
days receiving interventions before
the next step in determining their
eligibility for special education.
One outlier district reported that
students could spend 150 school
days, or almost an entire school
year, receiving interventions before
further evaluation. Another district
required only 10 school days.
Of 31 special education state directors who responded to a survey
from the researchers, 29 said that
the state had no policy or recommended practice to guide districts
on how long students could receive
interventions before being referred
for a comprehensive evaluation.
The paper focusing on the responses from state special education
officials was published the March
2016 issue of Contemporary School
Psychology. A second report, which
included reponses from district-level
officials, was published in the Decem-
ber 2016 issue of Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal.
may differ in form among schools,
but they contain some common features: universal screening tools that
allow teachers to accurately determine which students need extra
help; evidence-based interventions;
multiple "tiers" of intervention intensity; and monitoring of progress,
so that teachers have data on how
well a student is responding to the
Intentionally missing from that
process: a need for an official special education label before receiving services. That was seen as an
improvement from other methods
of identifying learning disabilities,
such as giving students IQ tests to
see if their intelligence was significantly different from their scores on
The "IQ achievement discrepancy" model was criticized by many
as requiring students to fail for
a long time before getting access
to specialized services. One of the
most influential criticisms came
from the President's Commission
on Excellence in Special Education,
which was convened by President
George W. Bush and released its
findings in 2002.
Adopting New Procedures
When the IDEA was reauthorized
two years later, Congress adopted
many of the commission's recommendations, including permitting
RTI as an evaluation method.
But observers warned of some
potential problems during the
public-comment period for regulations to support the new law. Without some sort of guidance from
the Education Department, those
commenters said, special education
identification might take a long
time and run afoul of the IDEA's
"child find" requirement that all
children with disabilities be iden-
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tified, located, and evaluated.
There also appears to be little
way to judge if including RTI procedures as part of an evaluation
process is an improvement from
other methods. Twenty-six of 30
special education directors who
responded to the question (one director did not answer) said their
states had no prescribed system for
evaluating the effectiveness of RTI.
"[RTI] is being implemented,
but not tracked in terms of the desired benefits it was supposed to
achieve," McKenzie said. "There is
the potential to really delay identification without some degree of
governance and oversight, even if
it's at the local level."
In the years since the IDEA was
reauthorized, the Education Department has addressed some of
the concerns. In guidance released
in 2011, the department said that
RTI strategies could not be used to
delay or deny an initial evaluation
for learning disabilities. It followed
that up with similar guidance in
2016, singling out preschoolers referred to districts for evaluation.
The Every Student Succeeds Act
does not include language about response to intervention specifically,
but it does contain a brief mention
of "multitiered systems of supports,"
a term that encompasses RTI. The
new law says multitiered systems
can be used to help students with
disabilities and English-language
learners access challenging academic standards.
That RTI has led to potential unintended consequences for students
with disabilities is not a surprise to
attorneys who represent both school
districts and parents of children
Allison Hertog, a Florida-based
parent attorney and former special
education teacher, said from her
perspective, RTI is used as a "legally persuasive" way to avoid child
find. "Some parents are told, 'We
don't do comprehensive evaluations
any more, ' " she said.
Jose Martín, who works in Austin
and has represented school districts
in special education matters, said
he's warned districts about following such strict RTI processes that
they might end up losing a legal
battle. For example, in one unusual
2011 case that the school system
ended up losing, an Ohio district
tried to require a student with diabetes to go through RTI before receiving accommodations.
Keeping the process flexible
means that districts should work
in partnership with parents, Martín said. He said that districts also
need to develop a set of general
principles for practice.
"How much response is necessary
to comfortably say a child is not
[learning-disabled]? It's completely
unclear. I haven't seen state policy
that defines that in any meaningful way," he said. "It's crucial that
[districts] adopt a guideline for
what 'response' means that is defensible in court."
PITFALLS IN USE OF
A survey of state and district
special education directors about
how they were using responseto-intervention strategies to
identify students with learning
disabilities found that:
l More than 90 percent of states
responding do not regulate or
recommend the maximum number
of days a student may spend in an
RTI model before further evaluation
for special education.
l State respondents said school
districts are not required to report
to them how long students are
spending in an RTI framework
l Among districts that reported
having their own policies or
recommended practices on when
special education referrals must
be made, 40 percent said such
referrals must wait until students
have progressed through RTI's
most intensive tier. Fifty percent
said such referrals could happen
at any time.
l Districts reported that students
could spend a large amount
of time in tiered-intervention
models-the average was around
50 days, with one district reporting
150 school days.
l Forty-two percent of district
respondents said they had neither
a policy nor recommended practice
for how long students could remain
in an RTI instructional model
before a special education referral.
Sixty-three percent said they didn't
allow schools to develop their own
policies or practices, either.
SOURCES: Tina M. Hudson, assistant
professor, East Tennessee State University;
Robert G. McKenzie, professor, University