22 Jun RtI and Timely Special Education Evaluations

June 22, 2016

New DOE Guidance Reminds Schools Not to Let RtI Delay Special Education Evaluations.

Over the past decade, Response to Intervention (RtI) has proven to be a highly successful (and increasingly popular) model for proactively responding to the needs of struggling learners. Rather than waiting for students to fall behind before referring them to special education, RtI provides schools and LEAs with a model for immediately implementing research-based interventions in regular programs that can fill in learning deficits for students and sometimes even prevent special education referrals.  

And while RtI has proven to be effective at supporting struggling learners, the Department of Education recently issued guidance reminding schools and LEAs that RtI should never be used as a reason to delay Special Education evaluations.  Despite the fact that RtI has been lauded by the Department of Education for its effectiveness, this is the second time in several years the federal government, concerned that school districts are delaying special education evaluations and therefore failing to identify students in need of special education services, has issued such a warning.

The RtI movement was born amidst concerns about overidentification in special education and a desire for more effective early intervention that would prevent such overidentification. Experts were worried that the “wait to fail” nature of the special education system was resulting in students without specific learning disabilities being placed in special education and was also preventing students who did have disabilities from accessing interventions immediately. RtI supplies a means of solving both issues: providing struggling learners access to research-based interventions immediately and within regular education settings, without having to wait for them to be identified and preventing students who don’t belong in special education from being referred.  While RtI was first implemented to stem problems inherent within IDEA, IDEA is the law of the land, and RtI, according to federal guidance, should never be an excuse for non-compliance.

Ideally, RtI and IDEA work together. RtI provides a model for supporting struggling learners in regular education settings while preventing students from being identified and referred to special education who do not belong there. But tensions between RtI and IDEA exist, and they are nothing new. According to an RtI Action Network article on the subject:

The RtI movement, has generated a new tension between the desire to apply early high-quality interventions to struggling students and the legal duty to comply with IDEA’s traditional child-find requirements. And, while schools are establishing RtI programs as educational initiatives, the child-find mandate of IDEA represents a legal requirement, violation of which can mean real liability for schools.”

What Does IDEA Say About Special Education Evaluations and Referrals?

IDEA is clear that once a disability is suspected, schools must immediately seek parental consent and evaluate a student for special education. Where things get murky is the criteria for what constitutes “suspecting a disability.” According to IDEA, schools should not confuse lack of achievement with disability, but should evaluate students for special education only if they do not meet (or make adequate progress toward meeting) grade level standards in specific learning areas “when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child’s age or State-approved grade–level standards” or when “when using a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention,” i.e. RtI.  

IDEA also specifies that when referring students for evaluation schools should provide data demonstrating that a child was provided with “appropriate instruction” over a period of time to which they did not respond and/or assessment data over a period of time. Data collected through RtI is often used toward this end. Additionally, IDEA specifies that a child should be evaluated for special education at any time should the parent request an evaluation, unless a school can show adequate reason not to evaluate. Finally, IDEA includes a provision stating that schools must permit  “the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention,” further complicating the relationship between evaluations and RtI.

Because the language of IDEA suggests that a student should not be referred for evaluation without proof that the student is receiving adequate instruction or not responding to research-based interventions, many schools have interpreted this to mean they should use a model like RtI to determine whether a student should be evaluated for special education and have adopted a process requiring that students participate in RtI before referring them for evaluation.

The new guidance, however, makes clear that RtI should not be an official part of the referral process:

“Many LEAs and preschool programs have implemented successful RTI strategies, thus ensuring that children who do not respond to interventions and are potentially eligible for special education and related services are referred for evaluation; and those children who simply need intense short-term interventions are provided those interventions. The IDEA, however, does not require, or encourage, an LEA or preschool program to use an RTI approach prior to a referral for evaluation or as part of determining whether a 3-, 4- or 5-year old is eligible for special education and related services.”

Implementing RtI and Avoiding Due Process

Schools and LEAs should continue to implement RtI as a means of providing all struggling students access to research-based interventions in the classroom and avoiding inappropriate referrals to special education, but to be compliant with IDEA and avoid Due Process, schools and LEAs must also have strict systems in place which ensure that students are referred for evaluation as soon as a disability is suspected, and that parental consent is promptly sought followed by a prompt evaluation. While RtI may assist schools and LEAs in determining whether or not a disability is suspected, it should not be a requirement that a student undergoes RtI before being evaluated, nor should RtI delay evaluation if a disability is suspected earlier on.

One way schools can ensure that referral and evaluation is happening in a timely manner and to avoid Due Process is to have technology solutions in place which not only provide a place to track and document referrals, evaluations, and when parental consent is acquired, but also provide proactive alerts and notifications which hold all parties accountable to fulfilling timelines that will ensure compliance. Find out how Accelify’s end-to-end special education solution automates special education case management through a workflow-based design which guides personnel through each event according to a district’s process, all the while ensuring timelines are met and compliance is maintained.

But beyond technology,  the most important thing schools and LEAs can do to avoid Due Process is to involve parents in every step of the referral and evaluation process and be clear about their rights. The same RTI Action Network article referenced above suggests schools and LEAs abide by the following:

  1. Meet with parents to discuss intervention options, agreed timelines, and available courses of action
  2. Make clear to parents their right to request an IDEA evaluation and providing written notice of IDEA procedural safeguards
  3. Reach a consensus on a course of action in a collaborative manner
  4. If the consensus decision is to pursue regular education interventions, share progress data frequently with parents
  5. Initiate follow-up communication regarding progress or lack thereof
  6. Convene follow-up meetings to review progress and renew consensus on current course of action
  7. Document the steps above.
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