Understanding RTI

Students in a reading groupThe field of Education is constantly in flux to allow room for innovative ideas and practices. While the concept of Response to Intervention (RTI) is not new, it has gained tremendous momentum since the reauthorization of IDEA. This article unpacks some of the basic questions surrounding RTI.

What is RTI?

RTI stands for Response to Intervention. In 2004 amendments were passed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that greatly altered the model of eligibility and decision making for specific learning disabilities (SLD). Although the definition of SLD did not change, the amendments allow local education agencies to “use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation procedures” (Pub. L., No. 108-446 § 614, 118 Stat. 2706, 2004). As a result, school psychologists are no longer required to use the traditional IQ-achievement discrepancy model as the sole criteria when determining SLD eligibility. The previous model of eligibility was based upon a significant discrepancy between a student’s cognitive ability and academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. According to IDEA (2004), RTI may now be implemented to aid in the identification of students with SLD.

RTI is a multi-tiered method of service delivery in which all students are provided appropriate levels of evidence-based instruction according to their individualized needs (Barnes & Harlacher, 2008; Dykeman, 2006). The concept of RTI is not new. What is new is the legal provision for its use as an evaluation tool. RTI allows teams the ability to make educational decisions based upon the premise that all students have received adequate research-based instruction. Results of this process can now be used to make eligibility decisions for SLD.

What are the key components of RTI?

RTI varies among states and individual districts. However, most models of RTI include the following components.

  1. Screening: RTI involves some form of general education screening to identify students at-risk for failure, as well as the learning needs of all students.
  2. Interventions: RTI includes the implementation of scientifically-based curriculum and multi-level interventions.
  3. Progress Monitoring: RTI includes some form of assessment to identify the student’s response to the intervention.
  4. Data-Based Decision Making: RTI incorporates the use of data to modify the type, frequency, and intensity of interventions for students failing to respond (Berninger, 2006; Dykeman, 2006; Feifer, 2008).

What are the benefits of RTI?

RTI allows teams to focus on results and outcomes of interventions rather than on the process of determining eligibility. The primary focus of RTI is on teaching the student, not on what the student has failed to learn. RTI has been promoted as a process to provide services to struggling students without delays (Alonzo et al., 2008). It can alleviate the “wait to fail” approach often associated with the achievement-discrepancy model by providing early interventions to all students without the need for a special education evaluation (Dykeman, 2006).

What are the criticisms of RTI?

RTI has been criticized as lacking clear guidelines and descriptions regarding its implementation (Kavale & Spaulding, 2008; Ofiesh, 2006). RTI is based on fixed principles, but how it is implemented varies among states and individual school districts. This flexibility creates a sense of ambiguity because there are no set standards for its implementation. Varying features of RTI include the number of tiers of interventions, the roles of the teacher and psychologist, the type of interventions used (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006), and how data from RTI is used when determining SLD eligibility (Holdnack & Weiss, 2006). RTI data does not provide information about why a student failed to respond to the interventions. Opponents of RTI believe that, when used alone, it does not provide sufficient data for identifying learning disabilities.

When RTI is implemented correctly, it allows for a multi-level system of interventions that helps to maximize student achievement. Teams identify students at-risk for failure using a general screening. Interventions are selected using data and progress is carefully monitored. RTI data can be used to make educational decisions and recommendations based on the student’s responsiveness. Under the provision of IDEA, teams can use this data to identify students with learning disabilities. See Models of RTI for additional information pertaining to RTI and the identification of learning disabilities.


Alonzo, J., Tindal, G., & Robinson, Q. (2008). Using schoolwide Response to Intervention to close the achievement gap in reading. Educational Research Service Spectrum, 26(1), 1-9.

Barnes, A. C., & Harlacher, J. E. (2008). Clearing the confusion: Response to Intervention as a set of principles. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 417-431.

Berninger, V. W. (2006). Research-supported ideas for implementing reauthorized IDEA with intelligent professional psychological services. Psychology in the Schools 43(7), 781-796.

Dykeman, B. F. (2006). Alternative strategies in assessing special education needs. Education and Treatment of Children, 127(2), 265-273.

Feifer, S. G. (2008). Integrating Response to Intervention (RTI) with neuropsychology: A scientific approach to reading. Psychology in the Schools, 45(9), 812-825.

Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (2006). A framework for building capacity for responsiveness to intervention. School Psychology Review, 35(4), 621-626.

Holdnack, J. A., & Weiss, L. G. (2006). IDEA 2004: Anticipated implications for clinical practice-Integrating assessment and intervention. Psychology in the Schools, 43(8), 871-882.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, 20 U.S.C. § 300.7© (amended 1997, 2004).

Kavale, K. A., & Spaulding, L. S. (2008). Is Response to Intervention good policy for Specific Learning Disability? Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(4), 169-179.

Ofiesh, N. (2006). Response to intervention and the identification of specific learning disabilities: Why we need comprehensive evaluations as part of the process. Psychology in the Schools, 43(8), 883-898.

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