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Your RTI and MTSS Academic Screening Process: Performing a Check-Up

Special Education

Modern air travel is a marvel of complexity, with thousands of commercial flights traversing the world each day. At the center of this transportation web, air traffic controllers bring order to potential chaos by tracking every aircraft safely from liftoff to landing.

The RTI/MTSS model, too, is complex. It requires that schools track the academic performance of all students, identify those with academic delays, and proactively place these learners in supplemental (Tier 2) or intensive (Tier 3) intervention support. And once at-risk students close the skills-gap with typically performing peers, schools must be ready to exit them from Tier 2/3 services. 

School-wide academic screeners provide the equivalent of air traffic control for RTI/MTSS. These screeners serve as a kind of radar screen for RTI/MTSS providers — an efficient method to help your team identify which students are at heightened risk for academic failure and need ‘catch-up’ intervention services, and which have made adequate progress at Tier 2/3, and can be discharged.

Because so much of the impact of RTI/MTSS depends upon the quality and use of screening data, veteran RTI/MTSS districts should start the school year by reviewing their school-wide screening procedures. In particular, districts should investigate whether they have the right tools for screening; are consistent in their application of screening data for Tier 2/3 entry and exit; and are avoiding premature screening in the fall that can overidentify students for Tier 2/3 services. Let’s look at each question separately.

Evaluating the Quality and Use of Screening Data

Do our academic screeners identify the ‘right’ students?

An important question about your school’s current set of screeners is whether they actually detect those students who most need intervention. 

There are essentially two types of school-wide academic screeners: (1) basic-skills measures, and (2) general (curriculum) skills measures. Screeners that assess basic skills are brief, timed measures that assess both accuracy and fluency in foundation academic skills such as reading fluency or math computation. In contrast, screeners that assess general skills provide more global information about students’ mastery of skills tied to national or state academic standards. Both basic-skills and general-skills screeners can accurately highlight which students stand out from peers as needing intervention support. So how do schools determine which type of screener is best for them? That decision will hinge on the average academic standing of your students. If your school has substantial pockets of learners who struggle with entry-level academic deficits that interfere with access to the grade-level curriculum, you will definitely want to include basic-skills screeners in your RTI/MTSS assessment plan.

Alternatively, your school may have a relatively high-performing student population for whom basic-skill mastery is not a major obstacle. In this scenario, you might forego basic-skills screeners, since they would probably offer little additional useful information to make Tier 2/3 decisions. High-performing schools might instead adopt general-skills screeners that provide rich information about each learner’s mastery of curriculum-embedded skills.
Of course, schools can also elect to use a mix of basic- and general-skills screeners to benefit from the strengths of both types of assessment.

Schools should avoid the temptation to use informal classroom academic assessments as RTI/MTSS screeners. While such measures can certainly help teachers to monitor day-to-day student progress in core instruction, they are not normed and lack objective benchmarks that allow instructors to quantify learners’ risk for academic failure.

Similarly, beware of relying on teacher nomination as a data source for Tier 2/3 eligibility. While the nominations of educators can indeed flag at least some students needing intervention, they often simply corroborate the results of school-wide academic screeners. (This overlap is unsurprising, since teacher ratings and formal screeners both assess academic performance.) Also, teacher judgment is subjective, leading to the possibility that non-academic considerations can sometimes influence which students they nominate. For example, a classroom teacher might nominate a student for a Tier 2 reading group whose reading skills are intact but who displays challenging behaviors.

Are we consistent in enforcing entrance and exit criteria?

The power of school-wide screenings lies in their ability to predict academic failure. Educators place confidence in this proactive RTI/MTSS risk assessment because each screener allows schools to set specific score ranges and cut-points to define eligibility for services at Tiers 2 and 3. The expectation, then, is that student passage into and out of Tier 2/3 services is grounded on data and governed by transparent decision rules. Sometimes, however, subjective factors creep into the process.
For example, schools may find themselves recruiting students for Tier 2/3 services who would not qualify based on screener scores alone — because of extraneous factors such as parent requests, anecdotal accounts of classroom academic delays, or even a desire to ‘keep numbers up’ to justify intervention-staff positions.

Certainly, schools should have the latitude to select an occasional student for Tier 2/3 intervention who performs adequately on screeners but who presents with extenuating circumstances that suggest the need for such support. When truly in doubt, it is best to err on the side of providing intervention. But if your school finds itself drifting into the pattern of allowing frequent ‘exceptions’ as it applies its decision rules for entering and exiting students at Tiers 2 and 3, consider tightening up the process.
Tighten Up the Process
First, scrutinize your screeners and cut-points to verify that they can be trusted to find students who are truly at academic risk. Then, promote the understanding among teachers, parents and other stakeholders that subjective concerns about student performance should be backed up by objective screening data in order for a child to quality for Tier 2/3 services.

Is our school’s fall screening data accurate?

A well-documented phenomenon over the summer break is that students’ basic math and reading skills can regress. Sometimes called the ‘summer slide’, this slippage in skills does not affect all students equally. The good news is that it is also usually temporary, with most students catching up to their previous year’s level after several weeks of resumed schooling. However, schools can get an erroneous and overly pessimistic picture of school-wide student performance if they conduct academic screenings too quickly at the start of the school year. If possible, schools should delay fall academic screenings until the fourth or fifth week of school. If the screening is conducted earlier, there is the danger that the school will document students’ partial recovery from summer regression and overidentify those needing Tier 2/3 support — when in fact many of these learners will rapidly bounce back to higher levels of achievement.

The press for an early fall screening date can be driven by the school’s need for data to put together Tier 2/3 intervention groups. As a workaround, some schools have discovered that they can instead use data from the spring screening of the previous year to identify students eligible for Fall Tier 2/3 services. Using Spring data to set up intervention groups allows students to receive Tier 2/3 support immediately in the fall. Tier 2/3 assignments can then be updated as soon as fall screening results are available.

In Summary: Lead with Objective Student Data

School-wide academic screenings lend considerable power to the RTI/MTSS model. They have the potential to identify struggling learners quickly and accurately, allow schools to organize intervention resources efficiently to apply exactly the dose of intervention a student requires, and permit conversations about students to be grounded in objective data rather than subjective ‘gut’ feeling.

With all that is at stake, schools should ensure that their RTI/MTSS academic screening regimen is optimized to yield the right data, that the data is used consistently to recruit those who require intervention, and that fall screenings are timed to reveal an accurate snapshot of students in need.

Does your organization have an efficient method to help identify which students need intervention services? When performing your organization’s RTI/MTSS Academic Screening Process Check-Up this year, consider how implementing Frontline’s RTI & MTSS Program Management software can help manage and scale even the most complex RTI processes.

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About Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the website.