In the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) the process for determining which children have a specific learning disability (SLD) was altered to include response to intervention (RTI). This change stemmed from criticism of how children were tested for an SLD, which was primarily looking at the discrepancy between a child’s intellect (IQ) and ability. If a severe discrepancy was evident the child was determined to have an SLD. Since an SLD may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations using only the discrepancy model can’t accurately identify all children with an SLD. This is where RTI can be used to fill in the gap where the discrepancy model isn’t working.
There is no one definition of RTI but it’s most commonly used as, 1) an early predictor of at-risk students, 2) intervention for general education students with academic or behavioral difficulties, and 3) as a component of SLD determination. Usually, RTI incorporates a tiered system of support that increases the amount and intensity of intervention as you move to a higher tier. Most children in RTI will stay in the lowest tier and after a period of intervention will be back on track. For those children that need more intensive and longer support they will be moved to higher tiers. If a child isn’t showing any progress in RTI, this can be used as evidence that the child has an SLD. Thus, a child whose testing didn’t show a severe discrepancy between intellect and ability can still be determined to be a child with an SLD.
RTI can be a very useful tool in the SLD determination process but it should not be used as a stall tactic by the school district to delay assessments for special education. Some School Districts, after receiving written requests from parents to assess their child for special education, have used RTI as an excuse to stop the process. While IDEA does require general education interventions to be tried prior to special education there is nothing in the law that allows the school to stop assessment timelines after a parent requests an assessment. When a parent requests a special education assessment for their child make sure:
1) It’s in writing,
2) The request includes assessing in all areas of suspected disability, and
3) The request specifically requires any general education interventions, such as RTI, to be started during the assessment period and that the intervention doesn’t affect the legally required assessment timelines required by IDEA.
The general rule of thumb is there will be approximately 90 days between a parent’s request for assessment and the first IEP meeting. These 90 days include 15 days for the School to put together an assessment plan, at least 15 days for the parents to approve the assessment plan, and 60 days for the assessments. This is plenty of time for the School to try RTI and see how the results are working prior to the first IEP meeting.
If used properly, RTI is a powerful general education intervention tool and SLD determination method. It is a positive step forward in fixing the current education system and I look forward to seeing it implemented, in the proper manner, by all School Districts.
January 21, 2011 Update: The United States Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services issued a memo reminding School Districts that Response to Intervention cannot be used to delay-deny an evaluation for eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. You can download the memo here: OSERS Memo on RTI