RTI | Feature

Assess. Instruct. Repeat.

Response to intervention offers a new strategy for identifying and assisting struggling students without having to assign them to special needs services.

Assess. Instruct. Repeat.

At Pennsylvania's Allentown Central School District, administratorsknow exactly whom they need to keep an eye on. For that they givethanks to a specialized, far-ranging report their data warehouseproduces that pulls student data from areas the district considers troublezones-- such as student mobility (how often students changeschools), attendance, discipline, state assessments, and course grades. A red flagis triggered whenever the data falls short of a target score the district has set inany of those areas, setting the wheels of instructional intervention in motion.

"The report allows you to see very quickly who the kids are in your building who need to be on your radar," says Jeff Baird, Allentown's instructional software project manager. "And the report is linked to the district's main student profile report for the child, so you can see the information that is really at the foundation as to why this kid is struggling. Is it a behavioral issue? Is it an academic issue? You can see the underlying factors and make intelligent decisions based off of that."

Those decisions set off a meticulous monitoring process wherein the teaching strategies employed are followed up by assessments to determine whether the student has improved; if not, then the intervention continues. This backand- forth linking of assessment and instruction, called response to intervention, or RTI, is a framework for using data to establish the nature and degree of the help a student needs, and then applying strategies targeting those areas. It's a carefully drawn, systematic form of data-driven decision-making that establishes multiple stages of interventions for varying degrees of problems.

"The idea is that you create distinct tiers of instruction that have different levels of intensity, and then rigorously monitor student performance over time," says Maurice McInerney, co-director and co-principal investigator of the National Center on Response to Intervention. "You then use that progress-monitoring data to make decisions on how you're going to teach."

Multiple Levels of Support
Though some schools carry the interventions out to four and even five tiers, RTI is generally implemented as a three-tiered approach, and illustrated as a segmented triangle with its broadest slice at the base, forming Tier 1, which consists of primary interventions that typically work for about 80 percent of students. Students who don't show improvement from Tier 1 interventions, or those whose initial screening data shows them to be at risk, are moved into Tier 2 to receive secondary interventions. For example, students who are shown to be falling too far behind in math are put into Tier 2, where they receive smallgroup instruction two or three times a week and frequent progress monitoring for a set duration, typically about nine to 12 weeks. At the end of the intervention, if the data shows the students have gained a solid grasp of the math content, they will be moved back into Tier 1, or released from monitoring altogether. If the data shows some improvement but deficiencies remain, the Tier 2 interventions continue.

If no improvement is shown, the student is moved to Tier 3, tertiary interventions, and referred for special education services, where intensive, specialized interventions occur. An important aspect of RTI is that all the interventions taken are research-based, having been shown to be effective for students with a particular area of need.

Assess. Instruct. Repeat.
RTI is commonly implemented as a trio
of interventions.

Typically, only 1 to 5 percent of students are escalated to Tier 3. And that's a primary aim of RTI: to forestall the number of students referred for special services by addressing academic soft spots before they get too far along. "We want to start with the least intensive intervention we think will work to keep the child in with the general education program, and only if that's unsuccessful do we move to more and more intensive interventions," explains Diane Holben, Allentown's director of accountability and assessment, "so we're not jumping immediately from no help to special ed." She says RTI is a departure from using special needs services as a default solution.

"Years ago, the tendency was, as soon as a kid had trouble, we would automatically refer him for special ed. We wanted to get out of that cycle. For some kids who are having difficulty, it may be a minor modification that takes care of their problem, and they're not really in need of full-blown special education services."

Holben also notes that the intent of RTI is to undertake interventions that can be included as part of the natural classroom routine. "I used to have kids when I taught who had a hard time with a 20-word word bank, so for them maybe I'd split it into 10 and 10. Something like that was enough to address their diffi- culties. If that takes care of it, then I don't need to jump all the way to doing a formal evaluation. RTI is really about trying to be very targeted and looking at where, specifically, the child is having a problem, only moving to more intensive interventions in Tier 2 and Tier 3 if you're not successful at doing Tier 1."

Karen Baurkot, the lead math teacher and Title I math coordinator at Allentown's Harrison Morton Middle School, describes how the process unfolds at her school (see "RTI in Action"). If the RTI data shows that a student is at risk in math, for example, the problem is designated as Tier 2 and the student is placed in the school's second-tier math intervention, called Math Plus. Math Plus is a semester-long supplemental math course consisting of additional instruction in a small-group setting using Carnegie Learning's Bridge to Algebra softwareand text-based learning solution, designed to prepare students for Algebra I. Math Plus is taken during the regular school day, in conjunction with the student's standard math course, replacing an art elective in the student's schedule.

"I'm hearing from the students in the Math Plus program that they're really starting to make the connection between the material they see while using the Bridge to Algebra software and the material they're learning in their regular class," Baurkot says. "I'm seeing a lot of positive results."

Easing the Data Burden
RTI's reliance on data collection and analysis, however, could become yet another burden for faculty and staff. By adopting RTI database technology, districts can reap the benefits of the strategy without buckling under its data demands.

Researching database software to support its RTI framework, Allentown found Follett's TetraData Analytical Warehouse to be the best fit because of its flexibility. "It has allowed us to pull together data that existed previously in separate locations," Holben says, "drastically cutting down the time we need to spend collecting things from various departments and allowing us to focus on using the data to inform our practices."

TetraData Analytical Warehouse is a web-based system comprising two components: Analyzer and Dash. Analyzer is a data warehouse that allows multiple means of data entry, letting educators link assessments with student profiles containing demographics, attendance, etc. It can pull data from student information systems, assessment packages, and so on, so administrators can create reports, analyze them, and then distribute their analyses of the reports to teachers.

Dash is basically a micro version of Analyzer, geared for allowing teachers to quickly call up reports pertaining specifically to their classroom, or even to an individual student. The tool is also available for principals to see how their schools are performing, or for superintendents to access district reports.

It took about a year to get the data warehouse with the district's core student profile reports up and running, after which Holben and Baird worked with TetraData to develop the RTI report and sync it with the student profile data. The end result has made both data collection and assessment more efficient.

"I remember having to spend three or four days hunting down all the data on one student," Holben says, reflecting on her time as a high school teacher and instructional support provider, "spending time going to multiple people in multiple locations just to get the information all in one place. The RTI report and the student profile report allow teachers to continually update themselves on a child's progress without having to go on a major investigation to find out what's going on with the child."

Baurkot has noticed that, within her school, the ease of access to the RTI report data is keeping at-risk students from coasting under the radar. "In middle school these kids have five teachers," she says. "The kids who are identified as at risk-- all five of those teachers now know who they are. They know those kids will need a little more help. They can pair them up with other students or give them extra attention. It's such a valuable tool."

Baurkot says the RTI report is especially helpful in identifying weak areas in newly enrolled students who have transferred to her school from another within the district. "We can see their past attendance, suspensions, standardized testing scores," she says. "The report allows us to be proactive in identifying the need for special assistance or interventions."

The RTI report has been welcomed throughout the district, according to Baird. "We've received great input from staff members who are in prime positions to recognize its value," he says. "Our special education director loves it. Our lead reading and math teachers use the reports all the time. We have principals who are using it to guide instructional services, to make sure that students are getting the services that they need. And classroom teachers are using it to help guide instruction, and as a screener to develop instructional strategies as the student moves between the various tiers in the process."

Improving Behavior
The same multitiered RTI framework used for academic interventions has also been adopted by districts for positive behavioral interventions. George Sugai, co-director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs' Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and a professor of special education at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, has seen the focus of his group shift from students with severe behavioral problems to the positive social development of all students.

"We've created this continuum of behavioral interventions, reinforcing the notion that all kids need to be exposed to the best social-skills training programs, in order to understand whose behaviors aren't responsive to those programs so we can give them something more individualized," Sugai says.

As with academic interventions, the RTI model for applying behavioral interventions relies on progress monitoring, assessment procedures, and intervention measures that vary in intensity based on a student's responsiveness. Behavioral issues can be subjective, so Sugai stresses that an RTI model for PBIS must also include steps to ensure that a student is indeed unresponsive to Tier 1 strategies. "It's important that we measure how well we implement interventions with accuracy and integrity," he says, "so we can accurately say a student is a non-responder."

Barbara Kelley, curriculum specialist for the Orange County (CA) Department of Education, has trained teams in schools across her county on an RTI implementation for behavioral interventions. It's a three-year process that focuses on creating a new culture of pro-social norms within a school, through which problem behavior can be readily identified and results of positive behavioral interventions can be measured. In the teams' first year of training, Kelley introduces them to the Schoolwide Information System, or SWIS. org, an online database of behavioral interventions created and supported by the Technical Assistance Center on PBIS.

A Trail of Tiers: RTI in Action
Assess. Instruct. Repeat.

Source: Allentown Central School District

SWIS.org is unique in that it focuses on behavioral interventions at the school level rather than at the district or state level. "A lot of our district-based databases are very good for decisionmaking at that level," says Kelley, "but they're cumbersome for individual schools to use. When I train my teams on SWIS, and they see how easy it is to use and the benefit to their having access to such a tool, there's tremendous buy-in."

SWIS.org manages behavioral data for more than 5,000 schools in the US, Australia, Canada, Iceland, and New Zealand. Sugai says, "It allows a school to input its data, click a button, and immediately see a visual display of what its kids are doing, the location of the problem behavior, the time of day at which it's occurring, which kids are involved, and how many times the activity is being reported-- what we refer to as the 'Big 5.'"

The online database generates standard reports based on the Big 5: 1) average referral days per month, 2) referrals by problem behavior, 3) referrals by location, 4) referrals by time, and 5) referrals by student. Through these five reports, a school can get an understanding of when, where, and how often these behaviors are occurring, which students are in need of intervention, and the type of behavioral interventions necessary.

This simple data can be surprisingly powerful. Kelley offers the example of an Orange County school where office referrals were increasing. Looking at the data, the school saw the following trends: The upward spike in referrals was happening during the morning recess and were confined to students playing on the blacktop area, rather than occurring schoolwide.

"The school took action by reteaching the rules for playing on the blacktop and reinforcing the kids who demonstrated their schoolwide expected behaviors," Kelley says. "Office referrals dropped right back down to where they should be."

This often lengthy Tier 1 process of establishing the positive behaviors expected of students must be completed before a school can begin to put in place Tier 2 interventions. Only six of Kelley's schools have moved on to applying secondary interventions, which in the SWIS.org model is an intensive data monitoring strategy called "check in/check out." The student is given a form listing the behaviors to be worked on, which is handed to the teacher at the start of each period. At the end of class, the teacher circles a "0" (the student didn't meet expectations), a "1" (the student sometimes met expectations), or a "2" (the student successfully met expectations) for each behavior. At the end of the day, the data administrator enters the student's scores into SWIS.org-- which usually takes no more than a minute-- and the site uses the data to provide a graphic display of the student's results and the progress made toward set goals on that day.

"It allows schools to collect data on a day-to-day basis, or even period by period, and tell if their intervention is having an effect on the students, or if they need to modify or change it in any way," Kelley says.

Kelley stresses the need to involve not only the teachers of the Tier 2 students in the interventions, but also their parents and any school staff they interact with (bus drivers, cafeteria monitors, etc.). "With these first six schools, we're doing a training for the teachers and staff so that they're all aware of how targeted group intervention works and can develop a standard procedure for how the forms are distributed and collected from the students; a training for the parents so they can give constructive feedback; and a training for the students so they know how to ask teachers to fill out the form."

Kelley believes the expectations put on the Tier 2 students that are built into the check-in/check-out system are a big part of what makes the intervention work. "The kids really respond to the accountability, the discipline that comes with it, and the positive interactions," she says.


Developing an RTI framework for positive behavioral interventions, Kelley says, requires a commitment of time and energy if the approach is going to really take hold in the school culture. "I have schools who now, eight years in, feel like they finally got it all; their whole school has adopted this culture. Most schools see a big change in their school climate within the first year, which convinces them to keep at it. But it really takes about two or three years for the whole faculty to see the value in teaching and reinforcing these pro-social skills."

What makes the whole implemenation possible, according to Kelley, is the requisite data-gathering system. "A big part of what we train schools to do is to look at their data, create a really precise problem statement, and then go looking for interventions that are research-validated practices," she says. "Before they were just doing whatever felt good in the moment. A database like SWIS.org improves the decisionmaking process for the entire school. Really, we couldn't do any of this without the technology."

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.