Every parent awaits the test results with hope and apprehension. A large number of those students tested will not meet their state's criteria for eligibility for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) despite having continued problems in school.
Often, the news leaves parents worried. They may be relieved to learn their children may not have learning disabilities. However their children still have serious problems in school and show signs of learning disabilities that may not have been severe enough to qualify but continue to negatively affect their ability to learn and achieve.
Further, they will not receive special education services. Parents are very concerned about their children's futures and often feel abandoned by the system. Their children are sometimes referred to as slow learners, gray area kids, or kids who fell through the special education eligibility cracks. Until recent changes were made in federal laws governing special education programs, there were few mandated options for help beyond continued struggle in the regular classroom for these students. Some schools provided temporary assistance to some students through existing intervention programs such as Title I, which serves students from low-income homes who are not learning as they should. However, there were no formally mandated programs requiring long-term support for all struggling learners, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The fact is, many students with learning disabilities go undiagnosed and unserved simply because they aren't "behind enough" to qualify for services. For example, under most formulas, to meet special education eligibility requirements in reading, a nine-year-old student with average intelligence would have to be practically unable to read at all to qualify. He may not recognize letters or be aware of the sounds they represent. By this time, he would probably have been retained for one or two years without having any additional help or change in his educational program.
What is RTI, and How can it Help?
RTI stands for Responsiveness to Intervention. Simply put, it is an alternate means of determining whether a child has a learning disability and needs special education services. RTI was included in the 2004 revision of the IDEA as an alternative to the formula methods in use over the last 20 years.
How Will RTI Help Children?
In previous years, the most commonly used method of determining eligibility required that a student have about an average or higher intelligence and a severe discrepancy, or weakness, in one or more areas of achievement as measured on standardized, norm-referenced tests. In practice, a student would have to lag behind his peers by two years or more before he could qualify for services in special education.
Students with learning disabilities rarely met criteria for placement in special education until they were in third grade or later. They needed to fail long enough before they were behind enough to qualify. Picture this. A beginning third grade student of average intelligence would need to be unable to read even simple words to qualify. Meanwhile, his peers would be reading chapter books.
The aptitude/achievement discrepancy method caused many problems for learning disabled students who did not meet the cutoff test scores:
- They missed two or more important years of specially designed instruction at a time research indicates is the most important for early intervention;
- They were often humiliated and frustrated by their inability to perform as well as their peers;
- They were so behind others, the likelihood of catching up was very small, if not impossible;
- In many cases, students developed dislike of school. Some developed behavior and social problems;
- Some children with disabilities were never identified and never received services they needed. Instead, they were thought of as "just slow learners," incapable of learning as well as peers, but not severe enough to require special education;
- Many failed at school and dropped out; and
- Many had no post-secondary education and took low-paying jobs.