Special Education

RTI May Fall Short in Flagging Certain Students

By Christina A. Samuels — February 14, 2017 6 min read
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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 research-based 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 category.

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 this.”

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.

Pitfalls in Use of RTI Framework

A survey of state and district special education directors about how they were using response-to-intervention strategies to identify students with learning disabilities found that:

• 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.

• State respondents said school districts are not required to report to them how long students are spending in an RTI framework before evaluation.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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 of Kentucky

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 responses from district-level officials, was published in the December 2016 issue of Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal.

Response-to-intervention models 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 extra help.

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 achievement tests.

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 identified, 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.”

Federal Guidance

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 with disabilities.

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as RTI May Fall Short in Flagging Certain Students


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