Students with learning difficulties are more likely to demonstrate 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 a system of interventions to identify specific learning disabilities earlier and to improve the achievement of struggling learners without referring them to special education. One such framework 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. RtI strategies emphasize high-quality instruction in general education classes for all students, frequent and systematic measurement of student progress, methods for identifying students who do not respond to instruction, and delivery of increasingly intensive interventions to students who do not succeed with instruction alone. 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 schools monitor student progress using benchmark assessments and identify struggling readers. 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, often individualized, interventions to address struggling students’ unique needs. For some students who do not respond to tiered interventions, schools may determine the child’s eligibility for special education services.
The RtI approach has the potential to:
- inform instructional decisions for all students regarding the type, intensity, and duration of interventions to address learning challenges with regular use of data;
- improve instruction for struggling students through early identification of learning difficulties;
- inform the evaluation of students with 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.