Using RTI for SLD Eligibility: Moving Beyond the Law to Why We Chose RTI to Serve our Students

 by Sally Helton and Jenice Pizzuto

by Sally Helton and Jenice Pizzuto

“…The most important issue is not whether a student is a student with SLD, but what intervention would be provided to ANY student who is significantly discrepant in their reading skills such that it places them at risk for school failure, drop out, life failure.”
(Shinn, 2016). 

At the heart of implementing and scaling an effective, sustainable Response to Intervention (RTI) system, first and foremost is an enduring commitment to serving students needs rapidly and effectively in a team and data-based decision making process. The amendments of IDEA in 2004 formally introduced the legal right for states to utilize and require the use of an RTI process to identify students with a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). Prior to the legal changes in the amendments to IDEA 2004 there was, and continues to be, widespread support for such a change around the US. “…RTI emerged as a reform movement to provide more effective early intervention in general education for struggling learners and to improve the identification of children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) classification of Specific Learning Disability (SLD).” (Zirkel, 2012).

An RTI system is focused on delivering effective core instruction to all students and evidence-based intervention programs to struggling students. The progress of students in interventions is frequently monitored and teams meet regularly to make decisions about next steps based on data and decision rules. The objective is to find those students who need more instruction early before they have a history of failure and to provide them with the instruction they need in order to “catch up” with their peers. The evidence is overwhelming that when schools and districts implement RTI with fidelity, student outcomes improve and the achievement gap narrows. Providing and supporting early intervention prior to identification of an SLD allows students to receive instruction based on demonstrated areas of need quickly and ensures progress is monitored and adjusted by a team of educators. Students entering a school district implementing an RTI system do not wait until they are identified with an SLD to receive intensified instruction focused on improving their outcomes.

RTI provides support and data-based decision making processes to appropriately intensify instruction and interventions as progress is monitored. However, despite effective, research-based core instruction and interventions, some students continue to have low skills and make slow progress compared with their peers. These students may need the extra safeguards provided through special education identification.  

In an RTI system, SLD identification revolves around answering three fundamental questions and ruling out exclusionary factors.  

  1. Does the student have significantly low skills compared with peers?
  2. Is the student making slow progress compared with peers despite intensive, evidence-based interventions?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction?
  4. Can we rule out the exclusionary factors as being the cause of the slow progress?

All states allow the use of RTI for SLD identification with at least 15 states requiring the use of this method. Here in Oregon more and more districts are beginning to use this method. One district states their reasoning for moving to using RTI for SLD identification as: 

"RTI for SLD provides a comprehensive system for data collection and decision-making to support students, rather than basing decisions on a one-moment-in-time high stakes standardized assessment.  Or more simply…It is the right thing to do.”
Districts who implement RTI effectively typically see a reduction in the percentage of students (inappropriately) identified as having a learning disability as is evidenced in data from ORTIi’s last two cadres. When school districts commit to effective and comprehensive implementation of their response to instruction and intervention systems we see an increase in students at benchmark and a decrease in SLD identification rates.  

“Adopting an RTI model is about adopting best professional practice, insisting that we do what is best and necessary for all students in our schools, and, finally, rising to the challenge of doing that which is socially just. That is why we must adopt an RTI model and implement it with integrity in every school throughout the nation” (Prasse, 2017).

Prasse, D. P., (2017). Why Adopt an RTI Model?  RTI Action Network.
Shinn, M. R., (2016). NASP: Multitiered System of Support Digest.
Zirkel, P. (2012). The Legal Dimension of RTI: Part I. The Basic Building Blocks .
RTI Action Network.

(For more information, please visit the SLD section on the Oregon RTIi website: