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Is RTI Equivalent to Special Education?

by Pam Wright

Would a court view RTI as equivalent to Special Education?  It seems to me that RTI acts as a form of special education decision making and therefore is subject to the same legal standard-expectations-responsibilities.

There is so much confusion about Response to Intervention (RTI) – What is it? When it should be used? With which students?

“Would a court view RTI as equivalent to Special Education?”

RTI is not special education, so it is not equivalent to nor a substitute for special education.

RTI is a method to determine if a child has a specific learning disability and is eligible for special education. IDEA 2004 says, school districts “shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability …” nor are schools prohibited from using a discrepancy model.

“In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a [school] may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation process described in paragraphs (2) and (3.)” 20 U.S.C. 1414(b)(6) (page 97 in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law)

Read “Additional Procedures for Identifying Children with Specific Learning Disabilities” in the federal special education regulations. (p. 243-245 in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law). These regulations clarify that a child may be found to exhibit “a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, state-approved grade level standards, or intellectual development …” (Regulation 300.9(a)(2)(ii) and 300.311(a)(5)(ii)(B)).

Another area of confusion is when the school must complete a comprehensive evaluation for special education. Parents write that the school won’t evaluate because the child is going through RTI. While the school may use RTI to determine if a child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation process, RTI “does not replace the need for a comprehensive evaluation.” (See Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46648, which discusses Regulation 300.307(a)(2).

Links to the Commentary:

Must all potential referrals for evaluations  be preceded by RTI?

The federal law does not require schools to use RTI to determine eligibility for any disability. RTI is simply a method school districts may use to help determine SLD eligibility. RTI is not a substitute for a comprehensive evaluation in determining eligibility for special education as a child with SLD.

If educators and administrators actually read the law, that would alleviate much of the confusion about RTI.

Our school says parents cannot ask for an evaluation.

Parents have always been able to request an evaluation – that hasn’t changed. If your state DOE representatives don’t know that, they haven’t read the law.

** OSEP Memorandum – The USDOE’s Office of Special Education Programs sent a memo to all State Directors of Special Education in January 2011, clarifying that RTI cannot be used to delay or deny an evaluation for eligibility under IDEA

You need to know what the law says about RTI. That means you need to read the statute, regulations, and the Commentary. Then get a copy of your state special ed regulations and compare them. Are they different re: RTI? Substantially different? How? Is this another time when school people and/or DOE staff have interpreted the law incorrectly?

In A Parent Guide to RTISusan Bruce explains the RTI process and what IDEA requires, parent concerns and important questions about RTI, and what RTI means for our kids.

How do you know if a child is “learning disabled” or mentally retarded, emotionally behaviorally disabled – which requires RTI/Positive Behavioral Support?

Federal law does not require schools to provide mentally retarded or emotionally behaviorally disabled children with RTI/Positive behavioral support. The law does not require schools to use RTI before conducting an evaluation. If you have been told these things, you need to know that they are not in the federal law.

Federal law sets out the minimum requirements. States may provide more rights and benefits than federal law. That’s why I advise you to read the law and compare the federal and state regulations – that way, you will know what the law really says.

I share your concerns about the way schools are implementing RTI. Most people responsible for RTI do not have the education and training needed to implement scientifically research based educational interventions. But that’s another can of worms.

Do not get Stuck in RTI Purgatory!

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21 Comments on "Is RTI Equivalent to Special Education?"


Can a school require a child be placed into a Special Education classroom setting without an I.E.P. while conducting an RtI. Stating the SPED setting is the Tier 3 and the SPED teacher needs to collect the data for the ARD to determine if the student can be successful in the general classroom setting?


RTI process cannot be used to delay-deny an evaluation for eligibility under IDEA for an IEP. Read this from an Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Memorandum to State Directors of Special Education.

Read these articles (and follow all the links) about getting “stuck” in RTI


Yes, we have been told we HAVE to RTI students before referring for evaluation for special ed. Some student go through RTI for a year or more before admin decides testing is needed.
Federal gov. may not see RTI as special ed, but gen ed teachers and admin see it as the “Door” to specia ed. They consider it the “Hoops” they have to jump through to get a student placed.
Sad but true!


We have students that have been in RTI for three years. Parents are being told by the special education coordinator that they can’t for-go RTI which is determined to be three tiers of 8 weeks. The Sp. Ed. Coordinator tells the parents that they can’t refer until the process is complete. Some of these students have already been identified to have existing disibilities by individual evaluations. They are still told no that the entire RTI process must be complete. Parents need to be told the truth about RTI and allowed to make the decision as to wether their child will be forced throught the entire process. They need to know that they have the right to do a referral inspite of RTI.


Can a school use RTI service minutes as a substitute for RSP service minutes?

Jennifer M.

Is it possible to opt out of RTI in Florida? My son got placed in a Tier 2 program because his reading accuracy and comprehension don’t “match”. He got 100% on accuracy and 4/5 on comprehension… and he was sick that day. The school flat out told me that he’s in the program to improve his testing skills for FCAT which I am opting him out of next year. He is missing out on instruction time in subjects he likes to go sit in RTI and do work well below his abilities with a teacher I would throw out of my house for the way she talks to children. I just don’t want DCF showing up at my door because the school called complaining that I’m not allowing him academic help. My other option is to move so we can go to the school across the street to the one he already attends.