Response to Intervention (RtI) Programs for Struggling Elementary Readers

Young girl looks at books in a library


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:

  1. inform instructional decisions for all students regarding the type, intensity, and duration of interventions to address learning challenges with regular use of data;
  2. improve instruction for struggling students through early identification of learning difficulties;
  3. inform the evaluation of students with specific learning disabilities by assessing their responses to research-based interventions; and
  4. 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.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

In recent years, it has become clear that there is intense interest in RtI for elementary school reading. As of 2010, 43 states indicated they had a state RtI framework in place. Many districts and schools are working to implement strong RtI models. Investigation of various types of RtI practices, along with quasi-experimental analyses of their impacts on students, can help school district and state administrators design and implement these programs and inform federal efforts to support RtI and related early intervention services.

This evaluation will address the following questions:

  1. What is the average impact on academic achievement of providing intensive reading interventions to elementary school children who fall just below the cutoff for reading at grade level compared with children just above the cutoff?
  2. To what extent are RtI practices for early grade reading implemented in schools with experience operating the program compared with a representative sample of schools? How do these practices vary across schools?
  3. In experienced RtI schools, to what extent are students provided supplemental support in reading? In what ways do schools adjust the intensity of services based on student reading risk?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The study team will use a regression discontinuity design (RDD) to answer the first question. The RDD analysis will examine the impact of providing more intensive reading support to children on the margin of needing such assistance. Approximately 115 schools in the study make decisions about providing supplemental instruction based on a ranking of students’ need for that support and consistent use of a cutoff for determining who receives such support. RDD impact estimates would be calculated by comparing student academic outcomes for children immediately above and below the cutoff point. This analysis would provide evidence on the effectiveness of providing coordinated early intervention services funded under IDEA to students who are struggling to learn how to read and are receiving more intensive instructional supports for reading.

For the second question, the study team will examine responses to a school survey from the sample of schools with experience implementing RtI and a representative sample of schools in the study states. Survey data provide information on school’s identification of students and use of tiered instruction and special education services. A correlational analysis will determine the extent of differences between the two school samples.

For the third question, the study team will document the implementation of RtI tiered services in the sample of experienced schools through correlational analysis of surveys of school-level staff, teachers, and reading specialists (sometimes known as interventionists), as well as administrative records data. These surveys characterize the contrast in instruction provided to students identified for additional, intensive reading instruction and those not identified for such services. Administrative data helps describe student reading risk in the experienced schools and to what extent schools adjust the intensity of services for students with different risk levels.