RTI and Special Education

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    During my earlier blogs, I discussed how my school, Ocean View, reorganized around a data-driven decision-making model (DDDM) and used tiered intervention (RTI) to dramatically increase student academic achievement in reading and math. Beginning with this blog, I want to turn our attention to the impact of DDDM and RTI on targeted subgroups. Let's start with a subgroup that challenges us all — special education.


    At Ocean View, all special education students are assigned to inclusion classes, which are regular education classrooms with special education students (no more than 25% of the total class) assigned to them. A special education teacher is assigned to provide support to students in these classes. Our special education students carry various identifications including learning disabled (LD), developmentally delayed (DD), emotionally disturbed (ED), educable mentally disabled (EMD), speech, autistic, other health impaired (OHI) and 504. We have no self-contained classes, although in Norfolk Public Schools there are schools that have those classes for students who are more severely disabled than the students assigned to Ocean View.

    When Virginia state accountability testing began early in this decade, many of our special needs students had IEPs that exempted them from on grade level reading tests. Since the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Tests did not permit this off-level testing, participation rates for our special education students on the test were low. Then, in 2002-2003, No Child Left Behind and AYP became the law of the land. Ocean View, in the midst of celebrating large gains in student achievement scores and making full state accreditation for the first time since the start of SOL accountability testing began, did not make that first AYP due to our failure to meet 95% participation rates on the fifth grade reading test. Eight special education students were exempted based on IEPs so only 94% of our fifth graders took the fifth grade reading test. Suddenly, we were faced with the realization that ALL of our special education students were expected to take and pass both the reading and math test on their grade level.

    Although we had already moved from a pull-out resource model in special education to an inclusion model, our classroom teachers still tended to regard their special education students as really belonging to the special education teacher whose instruction was "instead of" rather than "in addition to" that of the classroom teacher. During reading time, the classroom teacher met with regular education students in guided reading groups while the special education teacher met with the special education students for instruction. Like the regular education students, the special education students got a single guided reading lesson each day — no wonder they were so far behind! Ocean View teachers needed to make a big paradigm shift.

    First, we admitted that we could no longer hide low special education student achievement within their whole grade level group. We realized that we must ensure that special education students received ALL the same instruction and intervention support afforded to regular education students and that special education support was the extra they received due to their disability. We started to disaggregate our data so that the classroom teacher as well as the cooperating special education teacher was held accountable for the academic achievement of our special education students.  Our first move was to require our classroom teachers to assign special education students to regular class reading groups for grade level reading instruction (Tier 1). Next, since special education students usually were reading below grade level, they were also assigned to the literacy teacher's group for a second reading lesson that focused on specific skills (double dosing or Tier 2). Finally, they met with the special education teacher for a third reading lesson with a focus on training students how to use legal accommodations to compensate for their disability (triple dosing or Tier 3). In fact, this subgroup of low performing students was the first in our school to receive three reading lessons each day and led the way in demonstrating the power of tiering instructional intervention.

    To further ensure that we did not miss a single special education student, we started tracking, not just the special education subgroup, but every special education student individually. We looked at individual special education student performance at every assessment level from the school’s monthly common formative assessments to the district’s quarterly assessments to the state's annual accountability testing. This way, we could immediately provide yet more support, if needed, from assigning a mentor to implementing a reward system to reviewing and adjusting accommodations.

    Results have been dramatic! Our special education subgroup is often the highest performing in our school as evidenced by the results of the 2009 state test where 100% of third and fourth grade students and 93% of fifth grade students scored proficient on annual state accountability reading tests.

    In math, we see similar results. Although our most of our special education students were already taking the state math test with a read aloud accommodation, their performance was erratic and disappointing. Now, following the reading model, special education students remain with the teacher during math instruction (often sitting with the special education teacher or paraprofessional for extra support). Then, while the regular education students are receiving guided and independent practice, the special education teacher provides reinforcement for identified students with a focus on their IEP accommodations. If a special education student scores non-proficient on a school monthly math assessment, that student joins the non-proficient regular education students for intervention lessons with the math specialist. Once again, the special education students receive the same classroom and intervention instruction and support given to regular education students; but, they have additional support provided by the special education teacher for three tiered support. State math testing results are equally high — 100% of all third and fourth grade and 93% of all fifth grade special education students passed the 2009 state math test!

    At Ocean View, our teachers no longer duck to avoid having special education students in their class. They welcome both the support from the special education teacher and the boost to their pass rates that this subgroup provides.

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