Saturday / November 26

New Federal Report Says RTI Students Fall Behind

A 13-state evaluation report finds that Grade 1 through Grade 3 students receiving Tier II literacy interventions actually lose ground. Here are some reasons why.

This past November (2015), a new federal report, Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading—commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and completed by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance—was disseminated across the country.

The largest federal investigation of its kind, the study involved approximately 24,000 first through third grade students in 13 states. More importantly, it statistically compared 146 schools that had been implementing key elements from the U.S. Department of Education’s Response-to-Intervention (RtI) framework in literacy for at least three years, with 100 randomly-selected comparison schools in the same 13 states—that were not implementing RtI.

RtI is a multi-tiered instructional and intervention system that has its historical roots in the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Its framework has been promoted (if not mandated during the Reading First era) by the U.S. Department of Education—especially through a number of its federally-funded national Technical Assistance and Dissemination Centers.

Typically, RtI involves assessing students (in reading for this new study) with a screening tool, putting moderately or significantly deficient students (identified by the tool) into intervention groups (called “Tier II”), and monitoring their progress over time. If the student makes good progress, then the (Tier II) intervention is discontinued. If the student does not progress or falls further behind, then more individualized Tier III interventions are attempted.

Significantly, this RtI framework has always had many critical flaws—flaws that violate psychometric and psychoeducation principles of sound practice… flaws that:

  • Have delayed services to students
  • Have resulted in the wrong interventions being implemented, and that
  • Have actually added to, increased, or made some students’ academic problems more resistant to change

What Did the RtI Report Find?

While this extensive, 308-page Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading report has many primary and related outcomes, here is a brief summary of the most essential “take-aways”:

  • The 1st graders receiving Tier II interventions performed 11 percent lower on the reading assessments than the comparison students who barely missed qualifying for the Tier II intervention approaches.
  • The 2nd and 3rd graders receiving Tier II interventions experienced no significant reading benefits- – although they did not lose ground.
  • At Grade 1, only four of the 119 schools studied found data-based benefits for their Tier II students, while 15 schools had negative effects for their Tier II students. [100 schools showed no benefits for all of the staff and student time- – and resources- – expended.]
  • At Grade 1, 86% of students who began in Tier I remained in Tier I; 50% of the students who began in Tier II remained there; and 65% of the students in Tier III remained. Across the Grade 1 student sample, 13% of the students moved to a more intensive Tier, and 14% moved to a less intensive Tier.  [The percentages of students moving were smaller in Grades 2 and 3.]
  • Students already receiving special education services or who were “old for grade” (probably due to delayed entrances or retentions) had particularly poor results when they received Tier II interventions.
  • For all students, the reading results did not significantly differ for students from different income levels, racial groups, or native languages.

Additional “More Subtle” Report Findings

In addition to the primary results above, a “close reading” of the RtI Report reveals some important additional findings for the RtI schools:

  • 79% of the schools for the Grade 1 students, 75% of the schools for Grade 2, and 80% of the schools for Grade 3 used only ONE screening test when placing their students in Tier II interventions in the Fall.
  • Once again, two curriculum-based measurement tools (the DIBELS or the AIMS) were the most-used screeners.
  • Between 31% (Grade 3) and 38% (Grade 1) of the students in the study were placed into Tier II or III interventions using no other information but the screening test.
  • The “interventions” tracked by the RtI Report were simply small-group instruction or one-on-one tutoring.

While the schools were surveyed on the focus of the interventions (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, or reading comprehension), the Report did not identify or track the specific skill-based interventions received by the students.

  • However, in 1st grade for example, 45% of the schools provided Tier II interventions to groups of students at all reading levels- – not just for students reading below grade level. Moreover, 67% of schools provided Tier II interventions during the core reading instruction- – not just in addition to it.
  • Across Grades 1 through 3, teachers provided Core Instruction for approximately 102 minutes per day. 97% of the schools provided Tier II interventions at least 3 times per week- – for approximately 39 minutes per day.  68% of the schools provided Tier III interventions at least 5 times per week- – for approximately 49 minutes per day.
  • Finally, for the Below Grade Level students in intervention groups, 37% of them in Grade 1, 28% in Grade 2, and 22% in Grade 3 were receiving their interventions from paraprofessionals- – not certified teachers or reading or other specialists.

Recommendations to Improve RtI Processes across the Country

This RtI Report is critical because our almost-annual surveys now estimate that (a) more than 70% of school districts across the country are using RtI processes in at least some classrooms, (b) it has become largely a general education approach, but that (c) most schools are using the same RtI approaches reflected in the RtI Report.

While the Report spent precious little time discussing the hypothesized reasons for the bleak results, a number of the results are because the RtI process—largely used since the mid-2000s as promoted by the U.S. Department of Education—has (as suggested earlier) many critical flaws—flaws that violate psychometric and psychoeducational principles.

Please understand: my purpose here is not to bash RtI. My purpose is to correct the bad practices that have been advocated, and improve the outcomes for students, staff, and schools.

At the same time, nothing in education should be utilized in a “one-size-fits-all” manner. We need to strategically use RtI to attain its best outcomes. But RtI needs to be implemented in the context of school improvement at the systemic level, and sound data-based problem-solving at the student level.

And so, in my next blog post I’ll provide some recommendations to improve RtI processes around the country.

Additional Resources


Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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