Is RTI Equivalent to Special Education?

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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!

  1. Can students be served for Special Education during their reading intervention time as established by assessments from the reading team?

  2. Folks, please read the original post! (above)

    “RTI” refers to “response to intervention.” RTI a method to determine eligibility for children with specific learning disabilities (SLD).

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

    If a child is eligible, the child should have an IEP that describes the services and supports he needs and the school will provide.

    Confusion about RTI leads to so many problems. Districts tell parents that they can’t request a special ed evaluation because their child is in RTI. This is wrong. (refer to the post above for more about this).

    RTI is not a substitute for a comprehensive evaluation to determine if a child with SLD is eligible for (needs) special education.

    • I am coming in late reading these comments. I think I am getting confused. I am a SPED teacher and my school is dictating my IEP goals based on their RTI data. Doesn’t the nature of the disability come into play at some point? My students are making good progress towards the IEP goals but when they take the RTI monitoring test, the are not showing enough growth. Absences, social emotional … nothing else if considered except the data that is reported on all students in the school. This model it feels that MTSS and RTI over rule an IEP?

  3. I have been questioning my counties approach to RTI. I am a SPED teacher and serve my students who have already been identified and tested. They receive services to address those deficits through IEP goals. My question is…

    Do SPED kids, already identified as SLD still stay in RTI as Tier 3? Are SPED teachers required to monitor those goals?

    What I am experiencing is that as soon as a student is identified SPED, all general education teachers are “hands off” and provide no intervention. I am told to make their RTI goals the same as their IEP goals. I just don’t understand why we are continuing to monitor SPED kids in RTI. Additionally, I feel that Gen Ed teachers should NOT take a hands off approach and provide intervention so that they can access content being taught in class

    • Legally the IEP team could decide RTI services were needed to provide FAPE. A special ed student is to receive appropriate specially designed instruction, & related services from special ed staff, & accommodations, & modifications from general ed staff. Your last statement is totally on target, & I feel is the responsibility of the campus administrators. Thanks for caring so much for your students.

    • Hi Mooney, If a child is identified with SLD, the services he needs are described in the IEP. These services may be similar to what he received in RTI but RTI is not special education.

      RE: general ed teachers not providing intervention. You’re right. We shouldn’t have separate educational systems within schools to serve two separate groups of students. The child’s IEP team must include at least one general ed teacher who is knowledgeable abt the general curriculum and how to adapt it.

      All the child’s teachers are responsible for providing services and accoms/mods to “SPED students” so they can be educated in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent possible (LRE mandate in IDEA).

  4. Can students receiving special education services in say, reading, receive RtI
    as well? This has been a topic of discussion in my county as many schools are placing students in RtI even through they have an IEP. Thanks for any and all info.

    • RTI is basically designed to determine if that instruction will allow a student to learn appropriately without receiving specially designed instruction under special ed. But I guess an IEP team could decide RTI along with other specially designed instruction, and supports were needed to provide an appropriate education for a child. Seems like this is a question to ask the state education agency.

  5. I have students that continue to need Sped services, but their RTI data indicates they are no longer eligible. When completing a re-eval, the data shows they no longer have a gap to qualify for SLD. Can they really take away all services based on RTI data? I need help as a frustrated teacher

      • Thank you. I’ve been in ESE for a long time and I don’t see why we would implement RtI for reading when the student has an IEP which provides services in reading. Wouldn’t we increase reading services/accommodations if the child was not progressing?

        • Ideally yes, but it can come done to an administrative decision based on philosophy, staffing, funding, etc. Also if a student needs multi-sensory reading instruction by a trained person, that might not be available thru RTI.

  6. I was told they was testing my child for special education. Come to find out they’re RTI testing. They have admitted he has problems but still going to RTI test. How do I get my child tested for special education?

    • One thing you can do is go to your district office and fill out the request for special education testing form. Fill this out and sign it right there in the office. Once that happens the school has 60 days to all of the testing needed. Make sure you ask for a copy of the results before the meeting to review them. If you disagree with the results you can request and Independent Assessment at the schools expense. If the school refuses to pay of an Assessment they must give you prior written notice. I hope this helps and good luck with everything.

      • I am not sure. RTI = response to intervention. Typically this is instruction based on research that is different than what is normally provided in the class. This could be testing or data gathering to determine if different instructional methodology is needed or that the new instruction is “working”.

  7. I have k-8 spec ed students & my admin keeps sending rti students in. It takes away from my spec ed kids because I can’t work on the sped student’s goals with them. The rti kids are not at a similar levels/working on similar things as the sped children. Is this legal? I keep thinking I should pick up malpractice insurance (although none of it is my idea).

  8. Can a school legally take away student’s accommodations and modifications and only use RTI as their support? I am a fed up special education teacher and am afraid of being sued as are our general education teachers.

    • It will depend on whether the student was served under IDEA, or Section 504, before these were removed. The federal rules say that the state, or district cannot require rti to be used before special ed testing is done. Your state parent training & information center can assist you with the rules in your state.

    • Yes. For example, a child may be in sped for a math disability but on RTI for articulation interventions.

  9. Can a child with an IEP use RtI & have it paid by special education funds? I’m seeing that tier 3 RtI is far more intensive than special education. So can it be used and funded in spec ed, because it works.The difference is that then at least it’s mandatory for the school to involve the parents. And, then there’s IDEA procedural safeguards involved.

  10. My children’s school district is pushing RtI only evaluations for SLD eligibility in order to stay in compliance with our state’s 60 calendar day evaluation time lines. Our district guidelines do not require any additional testing beyond what was completed during the RtI process. Many parents are not aware of this until after the eligibility meeting is held, and then they realize that they still don’t have any understanding of WHY their child is struggling, because no testing was done. I thought an evaluation that only determines eligibility would not be considered sufficiently comprehensive? Can you please share your thoughts on this?


  11. 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?

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

    • In a word, no because its not individualized instruction. Ask the school to provide you with the written policy that allows them to substitute RTI for related services. There isnt one. Keep track of how many sessions are missed, then request make ups. If they refuse, write them and tell them you will let the state decide what’s legal.

  14. 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.

  15. RTI is a bad joke on children who need special ed help and their parents and the community. I can interfund up to 60% of the catagorical special ed funding into the general fund of the district and never help those for whom the funding is intended by law. Also, the law specifies that you do not have to keep accurate records. All the district has to do is continue to keep children jumping through hoops and never identifying them. No matter what they do the funding never stops and they do not have to remediate the inate problem of the child.

    This is all a part of the privatization and corporatization of schools and children. Children are now revenue generators for contracts and pawns in a game with more money than the DOD. DOD’s budget is $648 billion and K-12 general fund only is over $700 billion. REAL MONEY FOR PRIVATIZATION.

  16. What about Illinois which essentially states that the evaluation must include the RTI process? The way it is written appears to be circular reasoning to me – you can’t block an evaluation request by a parent, but the evaluation must be the RTI process. Am I misinterpeting this? Regulations state: b) Provided that the requirements of this subsection (b) are met, each district shall, no later than the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, implement the use of a process that determines how the child responds to scientific, research-based interventions as part of the evaluation procedure described in 34 CFR 300.304. When a district implements the use of a process of this type, the district shall not use any child’s participation in the process as the basis for denying a parent’s request for an evaluation.

  17. I just came across a school district that decided to provide counseling as a service for a child under RTI. There is no parental consent involved. I was of the understanding that RTI was for reading and math. If behavior, which is part of the picture here, is an impediment the school cannot implement counseling on its own without parental consent under RTI. Am I correct in this? Thanks

  18. I have been an advocate for people with disabilities for 31 years. I am a parent of a wonderful man with Down Syndrome, and I am also an educator of children with disabilities.

    I was shocked to see the language used in the “Is RTI Equivalent to Special Education?” article.

    “People First” language was not used! “Federal law does not require schools to provide mentally retarded or emotionally behaviorally disabled children…”

    Come on you guys get with the program! As an advocacy and informational website you need to be an outstanding example in all writing! Don’t put the disability and label before the child!!!

    It is and has been for years “People First”!!!


  19. Some good comments, again it depends on your state’s guidance. In Illinois RtI is a required component of SLD identification only. I would say it can make evaluations faster as well.

    RtI cannot be used as an excuse to refuse an evaluation though. Guidance on that has been very clear in my state. I would also add that RtI components are only required when SLD is suspected not for any other categories. So there is still plenty of “traditional” evaluation occurring.

    Candace as for the funding issue, 15% of Part B funds can be used for coordinating and implementing early intervening services. RtI could certainly be early intervening services.

  20. The confusion over RTI doesn’t end with SLD identification! In our work at IDEA Money Watch, we are seeing many school districts reporting that they are using IDEA Part B Recovery Act funds to implement schoolwide RTI.

    According to guidance from USED (available from our Resources page), this is NOT an allowable use of IDEA Part B funds. While schools could take advantage of the IDEA provision to reduce local spending on special education (under certain conditions) when federal funds increase, as they did by the Recovery Act allotment and use those “freed-up funds” for activities such as RTI, IDEA Part B federal funds are only to be used for the excess cost of special education.

    Ironic that a process being used to keep kids out of special education is – at least in some places – being funded with IDEA federal funds!

  21. Being a former school administrator and current education law attorney in Colorado, I can verify what Mimi has said, although in many instances I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate attempt to avoid providing services or if it’s simply a matter of ignorance (not that that makes it any better). Unfortunately if you have three different Rti presenters, you’ll generally get at least two wildly inconsistent explanations about what Rti is and what it’s supposed to look like; therefore the implementation is erratic at best.

  22. In my experience, RTI was very effective. I had been trying for years to get my son qualified for services and became very fustrated with the system. It was obvious that he struggled with learning differences but was in that “grey area” that can’t qualify for help. It was only through RTI that he finally qualified. The only problem I had is that after he started receiving services, they were not very helpful. I found that teachers do not follow IEP’s very well, if at all. Also, teachers, including Special Ed, seem to do very well with kids who have a severe disability or who are average. But, the the kids in the “grey area” are being mis-treated and falling through the cracks. In my opinon, Public schools are only good for kids who are average. I have put my son in a private school for LD kids, and the difference is amazing!

  23. I am a student currently training to become a special education teacher. Part of my training is learning how to implement RTI. While it sounds like some states have taken this program a little to far, RTI was originally meant to keep students from being over identified into special education because of environmental factors. It also was supposed to help students who have learning disabilities be identified sooner into special education so that they would not have to wait so long for the student to fail achievement tests to provide services. That doesn’t mean that states should just use RTI as a means of identification and IDEA-2004 does not say that that is the only way to identify. In theory it’s a great program but it seems to be misused across the states.

  24. I have been in the school system for 31 years, the first 9 as a Special Education teacher and the last 22 years as a School Counselor. We have used psychological testing to determine eligibility for years. Why is it not important to use testing now? The results from the testing helps the Special Ed. teacher determine how to teach the child. RtI doesn’t tell you if the child has a short term memory, an auditory or visual deficit. RtI tells you, this child takes a longer amount of time to learn with many interventions.

    I believe more children will fall through the cracks wth RtI because teachers are fed up with numerous changes in eligibility and requirements involved with RtI. I have staffed at least a dozen children with learning disabilities in a year, but last year, I staffed only 3 children from a population of 1170 students.

  25. Three recent cases where RtI was the issue, 2 decided in favor of the parents and 1 in favor of the district
    Case name: El Paso Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Richard R. ex rel. R.R., 50 IDELR 256 (W.D. Tex. 2008).
    Ruling: Noting that a Texas district repeatedly referred a student with ADHD for interventions rather than evaluating the student’s IDEA needs, a District Court concluded that the district violated its child find obligations. The court upheld a due process decision in the student’s favor
    Case name: Delaware College Preparatory Academy, 53 IDELR 135 (SEA DE 2009)
    A new student’s extreme behavior should have led a Delaware charter school to refer him for an evaluation based on its observations alone, a hearing panel concluded. Neither the parent’s failure to provide copies of the child’s psychiatric records nor the district’s own use

  26. This is exactly what they are doing in SW Colorado. Constantly get told RtI first and then MAYBE we will evaluate. State Complaints are rolling out from this neck of the woods and we can only hope the State will see what we do. Parents must be diligent and willing to fight for their kids. RtI equals Refuse to Identify, period! It is the way our state chose to deal with kids with SLD. So many of them they felt overwhelmed and had to stop the process of identifying anyway they could.

  27. If a child is already qualified for SPED under orthopedic impairments, they receive Speech and Language and now there are concerns the child may have multiple learning disabilities and/or cognitive/processing disabilities. Does the child have to go through all of the RtI interventions prior to being evaluated for learning disabilities or cognitive/processing deficiencies?

  28. Great summary, it is also important to remember to check your state’s regulations as some states, such as Illinois, have mandated the use of RtI for specific learning disability (SLD) eligibility. That certainly doesn’t mean RtI entails a comprehensive evaluation, but it does require that RtI is a component in the evaluation.

    Also keep in mind RtI is a process that focuses on data-based decision making to match a student’s instructional needs to intervention, not just a new method to SLD eligibility.

    • Wisconsin also mandates the use of RtI as a component of SLD eligibility evaluation. I personally am a fan of RtI, but as with anything, it certainly can and will be not always done well. In theory, I think it’s great. In reality, I believe more training needs to be conducted at the “boots on the ground” level at the schools.

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