Response to Intervention (RTI) and the role in the Referral of Learning Disabilities

As par tof my current role in the Urban Special Education Collaborative we have just published a new research brief entitled “The Nexus of Response to Intervention (RtI) and the Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD): Guidelines for District-Level Implementation.” This brief summarizes current research in the field and describes guidance that states have been developing for districts, schools, and educators on the special education referral and eligibility practices for students with potential disabilities in the context of RtI.

Below is short description.

This brief:
1) provides a concise history of RtI;
2) outlines current guidance on the special education referral and eligibility; processes across many states in the context of RtI;
3) describes how several districts and schools have operationalized guidance from their states; and
4) offers specific district-level implications and considerations around addressing the role of RtI practices in the identification of students with SLD.

RtI refers to a preventive framework that incorporates universal screening, multiple tiers of instruction and intervention, collaborative, data-driven problem solving, and integrated and ongoing data collection at each tier of service delivery for evaluating responsiveness to the intervention. RTI provides a vehicle for responding to a number of persistent challenges, including significant achievement gaps among and between student groups, high drop-out rates, a disproportionate representation of students identified as having special education needs, and inconsistencies between existing curricula and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Increasingly, districts are adopting the RTI framework as a systemic reform with which other educational reform initiatives can be aligned (Murawski & Hughes, 2009; Sailor, 2008; Wixson, 2011). However, the uptick in RTI implementation is occurring amid ongoing controversy and ambiguity around its intended use (Castillo & Batsche, 2012)—specifically, how it intersects with the identification of students with SLD.

Consequently, states have started to develop guidance on how to operationalize the use of RtI data in special education referral and eligibility processes. This brief reports on RTI guidance documents from 12 states as well as a qualitative study of districts and schools in three states, revealing tremendous variability in terms of guidance and practices. Differences exist in terms of (a) the incorporation of RTI data in pre-referral and referral processes, (b) the use of RTI data in determining eligibility for special education services, and (c) the operationalization of (non) responsiveness to intervention (Rinaldi, Baker, & Sallis, 2013).

This brief concludes by offering specific district-level implications and considerations around addressing the role of RtI practices in the identification of students with SLD. Among these recommendations are (1) establish specific guidelines around what constitutes a comprehensive evaluation, with deliberate consideration toward if and how RTI practices intersect with the referral and identification of students with SLD; (2) develop a coherent system, integrating school and district practices, for the use and management of assessment data; and (3) conduct a yearly RTI self-assessment of both district and school rollout plans that reports on how these plans are impacting systems, processes, practices, and outcomes. For more detailed information and additional implications for practice please read the entire brief, available at


Claudia Rinaldi View All →

Professor Claudia Rinaldi is the Chair of the Education Program at Lasell University. Her areas of research are the implementation of the Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) framework in urban settings with English learners, teacher education in bilingual special education, and diversifying the teacher pipeline. Claudia has authored peer-reviewed publications and a book for educators called Practical Ways to Engage All Struggling Readers. She lead and developed a graduate certificate program in Teaching Bilingual Students with Disabilities for general, ESL and special education teachers geared towards applying research-informed practices to the questions and processes of identifying whether it is a language difference or a learning disability. Claudia developed a college mentoring program called Pathways to Teacher Diversity for districts and teacher education programs to partner in identifying and supporting underrepresented high school students interested in teaching careers to successfully access and persist in college. She serves in various boards including the National Center for Learning Disabilities and serves as an expert for and the National Center for Intensive Interventions.

Professor Claudia Rinaldi believes that it is critical to prepare teacher leaders who may serve as advocates and allies and who will respond to the belief that all students can learn and succeed beyond barriers like culture, language, disability poverty, and marginalization in our country and globally.

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