Progress Monitoring Within a Multi-Level Prevention System

In this article, we provide a quick overview of progress monitoring and describe how progress monitoring is used within a multi-level prevention system. The companion piece to this article details validated forms of progress monitoring in both reading and mathematics.

Overview of Progress Monitoring


With progress monitoring, teachers collect student performance data on a frequent basis: usually every week, but at least every month. The teacher graphs each student’s scores against days on the calendar and draws a line of best fit through the scores. This trend line, which represents weekly rate of improvement, is the rate at which the student is making progress toward achieving competence in the grade-level curriculum. Over the past 35 years, systematic research programs have been conducted to identify technically strong forms of progress monitoring. Information on validated tools for progress monitoring in reading and mathematics can be found in the companion piece to this article, as mentioned above; here, although, we focus on a recent outgrowth of these decades of research on progress monitoring—the development of multi-level prevention systems.


Overview of Multi-Level Prevention Systems


Progress monitoring is an essential tool within a multi-level prevention system. Within a multi-level prevention system, interventions of increasing intensity are allocated to students depending on their needs. The goal is to promote strong, long-term outcomes for the greatest proportion of students, without wasting more intensive and expensive interventions on students who would develop well without them. Primary prevention is the universal core program. This is conducted in general education, often with the use of individual accommodations and adaptations that are managed by the general education teacher. If primary prevention relies on a strong, research-based form of instruction, the vast majority of students can be expected to develop nicely, precluding the need for more intensive intervention. Assessment (i.e., screening) is used to identify students who are unlikely to benefit from primary prevention (i.e., the core instructional program). Sometimes, short-term progress monitoring is used to supplement screening in order to verify the group of students for whom the universal core program is in fact ineffective. We refer to these students as at-risk for academic difficulties.


Secondary prevention is reserved for these at-risk students. Secondary prevention incorporates a greater level of intensity than can ordinarily be accomplished in general education. Secondary prevention typically is delivered in small-groups for 10–25 weeks by well-trained tutors (who are not necessarily certified teachers). In many models, secondary prevention is based on a standard protocol (i.e., a prescriptive, research-based or validated intervention). The assumption is that most students who enter Secondary prevention should benefit from a well designed, structured tutoring program that has been shown in rigorous, controlled studies to be effective for most students. In some models, multiple rounds of tutoring are attempted, sometimes with modifications configured during the second or third round of tutoring to strengthen effects. Assessment is used to determine which students make adequate progress (i.e., are responsive to secondary prevention) and which students are unresponsive and therefore need more intensive supports than can be provided with secondary prevention. Responsive students are returned to primary prevention, but progress monitoring continues to determine whether secondary prevention becomes necessary again the the future.


For the small number of students for whom secondary prevention does not prove effective, an even more intensive level of instruction, tertiary prevention), is conducted. This most intensive level of instruction typically involves instruction that is delivered individually or in pairs and that is individually designed, using ongoing progress-monitoring data. Often, it is conducted under the auspices of special education resources, using special education certified teachers who are well versed in how to use progress monitoring to individually tailor instruction. Progress monitoring is also used in tertiary prevention to determine when student response to the individualized programming is sufficiently strong so that the student might thrive within a less intensive level of the multilevel prevention system, in secondary or primary prevention. Progress monitoring continues for these students.


Progress monitoring plays four critical roles within a multi-level prevention system, as listed here and detailed in the next section:


  1. Determine whether primary prevention (i.e., the core instructional program) is working for a given student.
  2. Distinguish adequate from inadequate response to the secondary prevention and thereby identify students likely to have a learning disability.
  3. Inductively design individualized instruction programs to optimize learning at the tertiary prevention in students who likely have learning disabilities.
  4. Determine when the student’s response to tertiary prevention indicates that a return to primary or secondary prevention is possible.

Four Critical Roles of Progress Monitoring Within a Multi-Tier Prevention System

Purpose 1: Identifying Students Who Require Secondary Prevention

The first progress-monitoring function is to identify which students in a school may be at risk for poor reading outcomes. These students become the focus of secondary prevention. To identify at-risk students, a brief screening measure is administered to all students in a school or within targeted grade levels within a school. A cut-score is then determined. When students score below the cut-score, they may score poorly on a valued outcome, such as performance on the high-stakes test, at a later time. In some multilevel prevention systems, students scoring below this cutoff are designated as at risk. This screening, which relies on a one-time test administration, is not a form of progress monitoring, which requires more frequent (typically, at least monthly) assessment. Therefore, screening is not a central feature of this article. (For more information on universal screening read, Universal Screening for Reading Problems: Why and How Should We Do This?) We note, however, that screening is important within a multilevel prevention system. We also note that one-time screening carries a significant danger of identifying students to receive secondary prevention when those students in fact would become strong readers without tutoring. For example, in a recent first-grade response-to-intervention experiment ( Fuchs, Fuchs, Compton, & Davis, in press), 50% of the control group, which had been designated at risk according to one-time screening but who did not actually receive tutoring, actually developed adequate reading skills by January of first grade. These false alarms are expensive for a multilevel prevention system because they require schools to allocate costly resources to students who do not require them.


Because screening, especially at kindergarten and first grade, typically identified many false alarms, we recommend that one-time screening should constitute only the first step in designating risk and that screening be supplemented with progress monitoring. Specifically, students who are first suspected to be at risk, based on screening, should be followed with 5–8 weeks of progress monitoring while primary prevention’s general education is implemented. The purpose of this short-term progress monitoring is to gauge student response to the primary prevention, general education program and thereby confirm that the suspected risk, based on screening, probably constitutes actual risk. Such short-term progress monitoring has been shown to greatly increase the precision of designating which students actually need secondary prevention (Compton, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Bryant, 2006).


Purpose 2: Determining Response to Secondary Preventative Tutoring

Within a multilevel prevention system, a second purpose for progress monitoring occurs within secondary prevention, as tutoring is implemented. When a validated or research-based approach to reading intervention is conducted in small groups within secondary prevention, the assumption is that the vast majority of students should respond well. If a child’s response to a tutoring program, which has been shown to benefit most students, is inadequate, then the RTI process has eliminated instructional quality as a viable explanation for poor academic growth and, instead, provides evidence of a learning disability. The purpose of progress monitoring at secondary prevention is to determine whether a student’s learning in response to the validated small-group tutoring is adequate. Students who fare well (i.e., who respond) are returned to primary prevention, where progress monitoring continues to assess whether the student’s progress remains adequate once secondary prevention tutoring ends or whether the student instead requires another round of secondary prevention tutoring. To distinguish whether the intervention provided is meeting the child’s needs and helping accelerate his or her rate of learning sufficiently, cut-points based on the progress-monitoring system are required.


Purposes 3 and 4: Designing Individualized Programs at Tertiary Prevention and Formulating Decisions About When to Exit Tertiary Prevention

Tertiary prevention is typically conducted with special education resources and personnel. Tertiary prevention differs from secondary prevention because it is more intensive, usually involving longer sessions conducted in smaller groups, if not individually. Moreover, because the use of a standard, validated reading tutoring program has already been shown to be ineffective at secondary prevention, something more tailored to the student’s needs is warranted. For designing instructional programs that are individually tailored, two approaches are generally used: deductive and inductive approaches.


A deductive approach involves administering a battery of cognitive assessments to determine strengths and weaknesses and then designing a program to take advantage of strengths and to make up for weaknesses. Unfortunately, a deductive approach has proven difficult to design and has been shown to be largely ineffective. The alternative approach, an inductive one, relies strongly on progress monitoring. That is, an initial instructional program, based on information collected in secondary prevention is implemented. During the implementation of this instructional program, weekly progress monitoring occurs, with prescriptive decision rules for determining whether and, if so, when the program needs to be revised. As the teacher conducts revisions to the program, ongoing progress monitoring continues, and the resulting data provide the teacher with information about which revisions accelerate student learning (and therefore should be retained and enhanced) and which program elements fail to enhance student learning (and therefore should be removed from the program). In this way, the teacher deductively designs an individualized program.


At tertiary prevention, progress monitoring also is essential for determining when the student’s response to tertiary prevention instruction is adequate to support a return to primary prevention (general education, with or without accommodations or modifications) or to secondary prevention (small-group tutoring). After exiting tertiary prevention, progress monitoring continues so that tertiary intervention can be re-initiated as needed.


In sum, progress monitoring is an essential tool within a multilevel prevention system. It is used to identify students at-risk for academic difficulty, who need to enter secondary prevention. Progress monitoring is also used at the secondary prevention level, where validated, standard tutoring programs are used. At the secondary prevention level, progress monitoring is used to gauge students’ responsiveness to that tutoring program. Students who are responsive return to primary prevention, with ongoing progress monitoring. By contrast, students who are unresponsive to the standard tutoring program have demonstrated the need for a non-standard, or individualized, instructional program. These students on to tertiary prevention, where progress monitoring is used to inductively formulate an effective, individualized instructional program and to monitoring progress, in response to that individualized instructional program. The goal is to return the student to a less intensive level of the multilevel prevention system as soon as possible, while continue to monitoring his/her progress in case a need re-emerges for tertiary prevention.




Compton, D. L., Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Bryant, J. D. (2006). Selecting at-risk readers in first grade for early intervention: A two-year longitudinal study of decision rules and procedures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 394–409.


Fuchs, D., Compton, D. L., Fuchs, L. S., & Davis, G. C. (in press). Responsiveness-to-intervention for preventing and identifying reading disabilities: A randomized control trial of the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

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