Students Are Slipping Through the Cracks of Special Education. Schools Must Do Better.
This is the story of a student who got lost in the system. Jason* was a 10th grader affected by the pandemic like many other students and their families. He came to school one day and explained to his teacher that his mother had lost her job at a day care due to declining enrollment. His father was working two jobs trying to make enough money to support his family, which included his younger brother and sister. And Jason was upset because he feared they would lose their home and have to move before he completed high school.
Jason explained that he wanted to support his family by applying for a job at the local convenience store. But he had a problem. As he very maturely shared with his teacher, he couldn’t read the application.
The teacher reached out to me, an education consultant recently hired by the school district to support struggling learners. She said, “My heart is broken.” She invited me to meet with Jason, who filled me in on his situation. As he told me his story, my face turned white as a ghost. I thought, “How did it come to this? How did we miss him?”
Jason’s teacher assisted him with his job application. But did we actually help him or simply provide a band-aid to a larger, systematic issue?
As an educator, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day “administrivia” of making hundreds of decisions a week. And when we work with so many students, we can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. It can be challenging to see how our decisions and actions in the moment affect students over time. Especially because we are often reactive, instead of proactive, causing us to be less methodical.
After some investigating on my part, I learned that Jason had been with the school district since second grade. Yet when I went in search of data to see if he had ever been identified as a student in need of assistance or intervention, the issue was more than clear. There were no records beyond state standardized testing data available for me to review. Besides these test scores, I had no idea who Jason was as a student or what his needs were.
If I did a lot of digging and the results were dismal, what could his teachers know from year to year as he transitioned from grade to grade? How could they know what specific areas of concern to target if they were just getting to know him in September and October?
The truth is, they couldn’t. My investigation led me to one simple conclusion: The lack of a coherent system failed him. Our system, that we governed as administrators, failed him.
We had to do better. The question was, how?
The Evolution of Response to Intervention
When President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act in 1975, it was because public schools had a history of systematically denying students with special needs access to a public school education.
Originally students were provided special education services based on the discrepancy model. This model compared students' results on a battery of IQ tests to their actual academic achievement levels and anticipated grade-level performance. A significant discrepancy between expected and actual achievement resulted in placement in special education services. In other scenarios, students who struggled academically might test directly into special education based solely on IQ test scores. Special education services often included classes separate from the regular classroom.
Once education professionals realized that there was a difference between students who needed special education versus those who were not succeeding but did not meet eligibility criteria for special education services, there was a clear need for a better support structure.
Through research and evaluation, psychologists in the 1970s and ’80s sought to develop a new framework to stop over-identifying students as disabled. Their goals were to:
- Identify students who needed special education services more accurately.
- Serve the needs of students who required more instruction to succeed but did not necessarily display a learning disability.
Researchers and teachers experimented with identifying students who were not achieving by providing extra instruction in a systematic way. The results were monitored for student growth. If the student did not show success, educators would offer more intensive, individualized instruction.
A key aspect of this developing framework, known as Response to Intervention (RTI), was taking a team approach to student learning. Teachers and other educators, such as a school counselor, would meet to identify students who were in need of interventions and to determine which methods to try. As teachers applied the interventions and collected data, the team would reconvene to discuss student progress. This helped address an issue across the board rather than having instructional interventions taking place in an isolated environment. This framework grew into the idea of a student support team, which included teachers, counselors, parents, and sometimes, special educators.
The Power of Assessment
Digging through Jason’s files and coming up empty reinforced my belief that, if we had a true district-wide RTI framework with a uniform approach to assessment, we would have uncovered Jason’s needs sooner. Assessment data would have flagged Jason as a general education student with learning gaps who would have benefited from intervention. More importantly, this information would have stayed with Jason as he progressed through school.
Since the inception of Response to Intervention decades ago, some district administrators have worked to implement this process with varying success. Yet it wasn’t until RTI was funded through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004 that more districts seriously began to consider adopting the framework.
A key challenge facing RTI implementation is there is no guide or handbook. Special education has legal requirements that enforce specific timelines and procedures to govern it. In contrast, RTI has research to validate the practice, but no objective guidance on the “how.”
Although the RTI framework includes many components, Jason guided my focus on assessment. There are five essential pieces to implementing and improving an RTI assessment system:
- Identification of a universal screening tool that compares students to a normed-population of students in both language arts, math, social-emotional learning and behavior.
- An assessment calendar, by grade level, that is created annually to ensure that each student receives all assessments needed to identify potential areas of concern. It is important to note that secondary and elementary assessment systems will be different.
- A complete inventory of assessments by grade level that indicates the name and type of assessment, the subject area, the frequency that the assessment should be given, and skills being assessed.
- An assessment system that houses all of the data for review and follows a student’s record from year to year.
- Developing both district- and school-based data teams to analyze the data collected, make decisions about which students need support in which specific areas, and create district cut scores.
When building an assessment system, we want to avoid over-assessment. Districts should design systems that assess students in each of the core academic, SEL, and behavioral areas. Additional assessments should be introduced only when more information is needed to develop an individualized action plan. The assessment data should drive overall instruction and assist educators in identifying and implementing interventions that target and support students individually.
Jason’s story was a teachable moment for me. It reminded me that if we as district leaders had made different decisions or focused on our RTI assessment systems sooner, the outcome of this situation might have been different. If we became more proactive, we could uncover gaps sooner to prevent students from facing challenging moments down the line.
And we owe it to our students to be better equipped and more systematic in our assessment process. By reforming our thinking and our processes, we can support so many more students sooner. As we emerge from the disruptions of this pandemic and work to identify the ways our students have been additionally challenged, now is the perfect time to implement a research-based framework to catch those students who might otherwise get lost.
A few short months after I spoke with Jason, I had an opportunity to revisit his situation with his teacher. Thanks to her efforts, Jason was able to complete his application and was gainfully and successfully employed. Jason continues to work 15 hours a week. To provide additional reading support, we were able to enroll him in a reading course in school and focus some instruction on technology tools that can help him independently read text that may be too difficult. Most importantly, I encouraged Jason’s teacher to praise him for his self-advocacy and to let him know that his story would be a catalyst for systemic change.
* Name changed to protect student privacy.