Students with learning disabilities are more likely to have low academic achievement, despite recent advances in curriculum design, assessments to inform instructional decisions, and research-based intervention strategies. To better serve these students — and to avoid unnecessary referrals for special education services — researchers and practitioners have designed interventions to identify specific learning disabilities earlier and to improve the achievement of struggling learners without referring them to special education. One such model is Response to Intervention, or RtI.
RtI programs, which are built on research that suggests that low achievement may be due to inappropriate instruction and not necessarily to a disability, offer a multi-tiered framework to identify and serve students who are at risk for academic difficulties and may be eligible for special education services. RtI strategies emphasize high-quality instruction in general education classes, frequent and systematic measurement of student progress, methods for identifying students who do not respond to instruction, and delivery of increasingly intensive, tiered interventions. In the context of elementary reading instruction, RtI’s chief goal is to identify students whose reading difficulties stem from instructional deficits, rather than from learning disabilities, and to improve all students' reading achievement. Because of this focus, RtI was included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA).
RtI models typically consist of three “tiers.” Tier 1 is the core, general education curriculum where student progress is monitored using benchmark assessments and struggling readers are identified. The majority of students typically remain within Tier 1. Students not progressing adequately in Tier 1 are placed into Tier 2, which monitors and supports struggling readers through more frequent assessments and data-driven interventions delivered via small groups. If students demonstrate improvement after receiving Tier 2 instruction, they will either remain in Tier 2 or return to Tier 1. If students continue to be unresponsive to Tier 2 instruction, they will be placed in Tier 3. This tier consists of intensive, individualized interventions to address each struggling student’s unique needs, which may lead to determining the child’s eligibility for special education.
The RtI approach has the potential to:
- improve instruction for all struggling students by identifying learning problems early and informing instructional decisions regarding the type, intensity, and duration of interventions to address them;
- inform the evaluation of students for specific learning disabilities by assessing their responses to research-based interventions; and
- affect the representation of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in some disability categories by identifying and intervening early with students who have achievement deficits.