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Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing: Case Studies 3 & 4

School and Classroom Assessments: Response to Intervention in the United States

Beginning in 1975 in the United States, federal money was set aside for the education of children considered “handicapped.” Children considered handicapped because of their failure to learn to read or write were classified as learning disabled because of a discrepancy between expected achievement (on the basis of a measure of intelligence) and actual achievement on an academic test.

Several problems arose with this process. First, the number of children classified as learning disabled expanded enormously. Second, a disproportionate number of minority students were so classified. Third, it took an extended period before the discrepancy was considered sufficient for these children to be classified and receive the benefit of the financial resources set aside for them. In the reauthorization of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an alternative was introduced to address these problems. Fifteen percent of the money allocated for special education could be used for intervention programs intended to prevent the need to classify children as learning disabled. The premise was that, before limited achievement could be assumed to be caused by a learning disability, instructional interventions should be attempted in order to rule out the possibility of inadequate instruction.

There are few actual requirements of the law. It requires that children’s learning be monitored over time to determine whether instruction is effective (“data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals, reflecting formal assessment of student progress during instruction”). It requires that the instructional intervention is “scientific, research-based”—the definition of which is very broad. Finally, it requires that, in order to classify a child as learning disabled, there must be procedures and a committee (including the child’s parents), a relevant classroom teacher, and “at least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children.”

Researchers and school districts have approached this in different ways. One family of Response to Intervention (RTI) approaches focuses on the use of intervention to identify students with learning disabilities. The other family of approaches focuses centrally on preventing students from needing to be classified as learning disabled. Examples of each are represented in these cases following, and a comparative analysis of the two is presented in Table 2.

Case 3: An Identification Focus

One approach to implementing RTI involves screening children for potential difficulties using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS) to select those who are at risk of failure in reading. These children are given additional instructional attention. To ensure that no children who might need assistance are missed, children’s reading progress is monitored from the middle of first grade on by measuring once each week how many words each child can read accurately from grade-level passages in one minute. The passages are standardized and norm-referenced, and reliability is emphasized. In kindergarten and the first half of second grade, progress is monitored by a measure of how quickly children can break a word into separate sounds and give a name and a sound for a letter. Trained aides, special education teachers, and the school psychologists complete most of the assessments in order to limit the testing time required of the classroom teacher. Students are given a comprehensive standardized reading test at the end of each year. Students who do not improve their reading speed and accuracy sufficiently, or at an adequate rate, after eight weeks are given a small-group instructional program taught by a trained teacher aide. Students who still do not increase their speed and accuracy receive an intensified intervention with increased time in a smaller group, taught by the literacy specialist. These interventions are referred to as tiers, classroom instruction being tier 1, and successive interventions as tiers 2 and 3.

The instructional intervention is based on a program shown in experimental studies to be effective at increasing children’s ability to read words with greater speed and accuracy according to the federal What Works Clearinghouse website. The program is a standardized intervention package with a set sequence of materials and a scripted instructional format. Fifteen minutes are spent on phonics, word recognition, and spelling regular and irregular words; five minutes on building speed with letter names, letter sounds, and word family patterns; and ten minutes reading short passages (3 to 4 words to over 40 words) based on sounds and words previously taught. During the ten minutes, comprehension questions integrating literal and inferential thinking are asked and strategies for locating answers are taught. Teachers are monitored by the school psychologist to ensure that they are implementing the program with fidelity—that is, as scripted.

Before initiating a new tier of intervention, a committee—directed by the school psychologist and including a classroom teacher, a parent (or surrogate), the principal, and a special education teacher—meets to decide whether the next phase is appropriate, given the assessments. Parents are kept informed using the graphs and norms of reading speed and accuracy. Those students who do not benefit from these interventions are referred by the committee to special education for individual instruction (tier 4) and classified as learning disabled. Failure to benefit from a validated form of instruction is seen as evidence of a learning disability.

Case 4: A Prevention Focus

This approach to RTI also involves layers of instruction, screening, and monitoring. On entering kindergarten, children are screened for their knowledge of the alphabet, and those with limited knowledge are given extra instructional support from the start on the assumption that limited alphabet knowledge reflects a limited literate history. Progress is monitored with an agreed upon portfolio of indicators including dated pieces of writing; an alphabet record for recording cumulative knowledge of letters, sounds, and related words noticed during classroom learning and one-on-one conferences; records of children’s reading processes (strategies and accuracy); book difficulty level data; and anecdotal records. Some of these data are replaced in first and second grade with rubrics for judging writing, including writing stemming from reading. Comprehension is assessed through book discussions (small group, large group, and individual).

These portfolios are examined in monthly collaborative grade-level meetings led by a literacy coach who has 20% of her time designated for such administrative work. The coach is part of the school’s commitment to improving instructional quality to reduce the need for additional interventions. At the end of each quarter, children’s learning is evaluated at grade-level meetings led by the literacy coach and the principal in terms of end-of-grade expectations. These meetings include instructional planning.

The core classroom program has differentiated small-group instruction with the classroom teacher providing additional support for the lowest group. The school has a highly trained literacy coach who works with teachers 60% of her or his time to improve tier 1 instruction. Tier 2 is a small-group intervention with group size, amount of time, and teacher expertise determined by the students’ needs, but with the framework consistent with tiers 1 and 3. Each is focused on interactions that support meaning making and independence. Tier 3 is a 1:1 intervention with Reading Recovery in first grade or a 1:2 group or reading/writing conferences in upper grades. (According to research and the federal What Works Clearinghouse website, Reading Recovery is a program shown in experimental studies to be effective at increasing children’s ability to comprehend and to read and spell more accurately and to reduce the number of children becoming learning disabled.) The small-group interventions are carried out by Reading Recovery teachers and by special education teachers trained in the approach, and the literacy coach spends 20% of her or his time teaching these interventions. Tier 4 includes, as part of the referral process, close examination of the teaching interactions in tier 3 by an expert coach with collaborative attempts to change instructional interactions of students who are not adequately accelerating their ability to handle more difficult texts.

At the beginning of first grade, those children in the bottom half of the class are assessed using the Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement, a standardized procedure that offers instructionally useful information regarding literacy concepts, knowledge, and processes. This assessment is used to allocate students to tier 2 or 3. The intervention teachers keep daily records of writing, word work, and reading processes, and classroom teachers continue to accumulate portfolios of children’s writing and running records of their reading. There is a comprehensive assessment at the end of each grade.

Before initiating a new tier of intervention, a committee, directed by the principal and the literacy coach and including the classroom teacher and a parent (or surrogate), meets to examine progress and next steps. Parents are kept informed of progress using half-year reports for all students and monthly descriptive feedback by intervention teachers using, for example, writing and text-level examples.

Table 2. Analysis of School and Classroom Cases 3 and 4 in Relation to the IRA–NCTE Assessment Standards

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