Response to Intervention (RTI)
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a promising new measure through which learning disabilities can be identified. Students with academic delays are identified through a process of universal screening, and research-based interventions are offered at different tiers of intensity. Ongoing monitoring allows for adjustments to be made to interventions. If a student fails to respond significantly at the last tier of service, that student may be referred for either a formal special education evaluation or for formal special education services. RTI offers benefits for English language learners (ELLs) and other groups who have traditionally been overrepresented in special education as it provides services to students but does not identify them with specific learning disabilities (SLDs).
Keywords At-risk Students; Curriculum Based Measures; Discrepancy Model; Early Identification; English Language Learners (ELL); Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA); Intervention; Literacy; Local Education Agency; Psychoeducational Evaluation; Response to Intervention; Special Education; Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized as Public Law 108-466, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), with new provisions that allowed local education agencies (LEAs) two options to meet the needs of an increasing population of students with learning disabilities (Lose, 2007). One option allows LEAs to use up to 15% of their special education budget to provide learning support to students struggling with the general education curriculum and to support professional development and literacy instruction. This option is referred to as Early Intervening Strategies (EIS). The second option is Response to Intervention (RTI), which allows LEAs to provide learning support to students at-risk for school failure without formally diagnosing a learning disability. RTI promotes the early identification of at-risk children. Intervention prior to referral for special education services allows agencies to assess if and how well a child responds to the intervening instruction (Lose, 2007). The goal of the new measure was to reduce the number of unnecessary referrals for formal special education service while providing academic and behavioral support to children at risk for failure. Students who may initially appear to be in need of special education services may in fact have limited English proficiency or inadequate instruction; RTI can help to limit the amount of unnecessary testing (Cortiella, 2006).
According to Linan-Thompson, Cirino and Vaugh (2007), there has been an historic concern about the representation of English language learners (ELLs), students from ethnic minority groups and other subgroups of lower-performing students in special education (as cited in Donovan & Cross, 2002). These students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities due to inappropriate or inadequate assessment and instruction and other factors related to the discrepancy between their achievement and ability are ignored (Linan-Thompson et al., 2007).
A Multi-Step Process
Response to Intervention (RTI), or Responsiveness to Intervention, is a research-based process implemented by schools to identify and support students experiencing difficulty with learning. RTI programs differ among schools in their design and delivery, however, most involve a multi-step process that includes screening, which is followed by more targeted interventions. The final step is intensive intervention and comprehensive evaluation. Progress at each stage is carefully monitored. Parents or teachers can move to have a child formally evaluated for special education services at any time during this process, and a child's inclusion in RTI programs cannot be used to delay or deny a formal evaluation if one is sought. In order to do this, the lowest performing children must be identified early so that appropriately intensive interventions and tiers of support can be provided within a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction at the first indication of the child's difficulty (Lose, 2007).
Hilton (2007) describes a three-tiered system wherein the initial interventions are the responsibility of the classroom teacher and include data-proven practices to identify children in need of intervention. At the next tier of intervention, students who continued to under-perform despite tier one intervention receive data-based, research-supported intervention from professionals other than their classroom teacher. Progress is measured frequently to determine whether the student demonstrates any significant improvement in academic skills. If there is a continued failure to achieve, this can be interpreted as an indication of a specific learning disability and the assessments involved with a formal special education evaluation can be initiated (Hilton, 2007).
Of significant note is the idea that successful RTI, regardless of the model implemented, relies upon well-researched and data-proven interventions rather than random or trivial ideas. Haager, Calhoon and Linan-Thompson (2007) found that two issues are at the forefront of the implementation of RTI. One critical component is the employment of interventions that are validated by research, while the other is that only valid and reliable assessments are used to identify students at risk. According to Willis and Dumont (2006), historical information about the student should be included in any review of efficacy. Data regarding both informal and semiformal first-tier interventions and their outcomes are essential to the planning of deliberate and individualized second tier strategies (Willis & Dumont, 2006).
Standardized testing of a student's ability and cognitive processing for the diagnosis of a specific learning disability and subsequent formal special education services remains important, though some states have developed tiered models of RTI that culminate in intensive problem-solving activities rather than assessment (Ofiesh, 2006). Accordingly, Ofiesh (2006) asserts "use of RTI without measures of ability or cognitive processing ultimately disregards the definition of SLD and distorts the construct in the same way aptitude-achievement discrepancy models did" (p. 3). In its simplest form, RTI only documents low achievement and not discrepancy. Ofiesh cautions that without formal pyschoeducational testing, any tiered model will only result in the identification of a varied group of students who are not academically successful and who failed to respond to intervention for any number of reasons, rather than the identification of those students with specific learning disabilities (Ofiesh, 2006).
At its best, RTI will serve as a means to reduce the disproportionate number of minority students and English language learners in special education that has concerned those in the field (Haager, 2007). By identifying at risk students early in elementary school and providing intervening and support instruction, it is hoped that they will not continue to underachieve and will begin to perform at grade level (Linan-Thompson et al., 2007). According to Haager (2007), the reduction of the number of low-income ethnic minority students in special education programs would be to "improve the core elements of classroom instruction in the early grades" (p. 2).
Another issue that RTI is designed to combat is the "wait-to-fail" model, in which a student in the regular curriculum is identified as needing special education services only after prolonged failure. Among the reasons that students who might be in need of service are not evaluated or placed in a timely manner are "subjectivity in teachers' referral of students, inaccuracy in assessment practices, and lack of consistency in the nature and quality of...instruction" (Gresham, 2002; Vaughn & Klingner, 2007 as cited in Haager, 2007, p. 1).
Discrepancy Model of Defining SLD
The current definition of a specific learning disability (SLD) is based upon a discrepancy model that emerged in the 1960s (Ofiesh, 2006; Linan-Thompson, et al., 200;, Hilton, 2007; Haager, 2007; Willis & Dumont, 2006). For over 40 years, this definition was based upon a general assumption that a child with learning disabilities had at least average, if not above-average intelligence and that there existed a discrepancy between the child's intelligence and the child's academic achievement (Ofiesh, 2006). The current IDEA definition of a specific learning disability has remained unchanged and is based upon the one adopted by Congress in 1968 and adopted into federal law in 1969 in the Learning Disabilities Act (Bender, 2004 as cited in Ofiesh, 2006). Ofiesh (2006) states
The term 'specific learning disability' refers to a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include a learning problem which is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage (p. 2).
In an attempt to clarify the definition, new regulations were published in the Federal Register in 1977. They supported the discrepancy model and stated that in order to apply a diagnosis of a specific learning disability, evaluators must find that a student does not achieve at appropriate age and ability level in at least one specific area despite adequate learning experiences and that the student has a severe discrepancy...
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