Monthly Archives: November 2009

RTI Adrift

The roll out of Response To Intervention nationally shows progress in all 50 states and significant enthusiasm for this new model of education (NASDSE). However, RTI is showing signs of grandiosity, being viewed as an entire new way of educating at-risk children, through overhauling complex relationships between general education and special education in one fell swoop. In contrast, enthusiasm for addressing the problem of special education misidentification is muted. In working with the two concepts, one gains the impression of only weak advocacy for reducing the numbers of at-risk children placed in special education. A Google search for “Special Education RTI” produced 296,000 entries, whereas a search for “Special Education Misidentification” produced 11,500 entries.

Yet clearly the impetus for RTI and other general education pre-interventions came from the lively debates in 2002 over the excessive use of the learning disability category. The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education proposed:

“Improving this process [eligibility determination], coupled with research-based early intervention programs, may reduce the number of children who are identified as having a disability, particularly when early identification and intervention are in place and research-based interventions are provided before referral” (Commission).


“Recommendation—Incorporate Response to Intervention. Implement models during the identification and assessment process that are based on response to intervention and progress monitoring. Use data from these processes to assess progress in children who receive special education services.”

Where will RTI take us without strong linkage with the federal goal of misidentification reduction?

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) has argued for an “integrated service delivery system” where eligibility determination is a value-free outcome entrusted to IEP teams:

“There are two overarching goals of RtI. The first is to deliver evidence-based interventions and the second is to use students’ response to those interventions as a basis for determining instructional needs and intensity. Special education eligibility decisions can be a product of these efforts, but is not the primary goal.”

It seems clear enough that the purpose of RTI and similar programs is not to provide general education with an efficient remedial system supporting classroom teachers facing difficult-to-teach children (cf. Cortiella, RTI). It is not a movement to reform general education, making use of special education personnel for expertise. The spirit and direction of IDEA 2004 is to correct an historic and pervasive FAPE issue.

The idea of loaning special education personnel to general education so it can organize a method of helping at-risk children is a side track that doesn’t guarantee IEP teams will behave any differently if they receive referrals. In fact, after RTI programming teams might view their decisions as proforma decisions because eligibility has already been validated by another school process.

For some children pressures to refer to special education might grow, especially if RTI procedures are implemented hastily, or minority children fail to perform according to RTI standards when those procedures are culturally biased. RTI could exacerbate the tendency toward self-fulfilling prophecies among classroom teachers (cf. Massachusetts Solution).

If RTI is to be tested and judged, it should be evaluated primarily on its capacity to reduce special education over-identification. It should reduce referrals and placements, and placement decisions should improve in accuracy across all categories of disability.


Disproportion Georgia

The Georgia Department of Education presents an overview of the topic of disproportional special education placements, i.e. the misidentification problem. The percentage of students with specific ethnic or racial backgrounds is higher in special education than in the general school population. States determine disproportionality for every district, based on collected data and not on school policies. Compliance with IDEA guidelines must be achieved.

Suggested are hypotheses about causes of disproportionality:

1. “Failure of general education to educate children from diverse backgrounds

2. Misidentification, misuse of tests

3. Lack of access to effective instruction

4. Insufficient resources 

5. Teachers who are less well prepared 

6. Poverty”

50 Top Reasons for Special Education Overidentification

The recent history of American special education is that too many children have been placed. Here are assorted reasons mentioned in policy debates.  Involved are special education teachers, physical therapists, reading specialists, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, recreation therapists and regular teachers.

1. There were federal financial incentives to enroll children in special education.

2. Professional misdiagnosis.

3. Variations of state and local policies and regulations.

4. General education deficiencies in providing programs for at-risk children.

5. Use of special education as a remedial service for general education.

6. Over-use of the learning disability category.

7. Placement of more males than females.

8. Over-placement of minority pupils.

9. Limited special teaching skills of general education teachers.

10. Lack of pre-referral early intervention programs.

11. Over-lapping disability symptoms.

12. Referral of hard-to-teach children to special education.

13. Attorneys assisting parents with placement decisions.

14. Lack of variety of valid testing procedures.

15. Over-use of the IQ-discrepancy model.

Good looking Chevrolet-Deluxe-Fastback with skirts and whitewalls.

16. Under-identification of of some disabilities.

17. Administrative pressures to place.

18. Late identification of children with learning disabilities.

19. State-to-state variation in eligibility criteria.

20. Special education placement of limited English pupils.

21. Parent pressures for special education services.


23. Changing program criteria from early intervention to preschool to elementary.

24. Misevaluation of poor, health-at-risk and migrant children.

25. Inadequate personnel preparation for linguistic and cultural differences.

26. Failure of states historically to reduce misidentifications.

27. Continuing misidentification of children already placed in special education.

28. Inadequate school programs for limited English children.

29. Over-concern of administrators with procedural compliance.
30. Shifting intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic and cognitive symptoms over the first eight years of life.

31. Inadequate early reading instruction for at-risk children.

32. Inadequate school-based training programs for teachers and special education specialists.

33. Prejudice against children with racial, linguistic and cultural differences.

34. Lack of strong advocacy by professional organizations to reduce over-identification.

35. A lack of local leadership to reduce over-identification.

35. Insufficient monitoring of transfer IEPs for incomplete, out-of-date and incorrect records.

36. No Child Left Behind pressures for high performance.

37. Bias operating in IEP teams.

38. Poor communication with parents to disclose the risks of special education placement.

39. Over-placement of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder children.

40. Misplacement of emotionally disturbed children.

41. Need for remedial reading specialists to evaluate for early disabilities.

42. Inadequate numbers of specialists to make proper evaluations.

43. Inadequate long-term local record-keeping on the characteristics of at-risk and special education pupils.

44. More research on how eligibility determinations are made at the local level.

45. Inadequate staff training for the proper use of eligibility criteria.

46. Quick referrals (45 days) to special education without prior child study.

47. Classifying children too early without trial intervention.

48. Inadequate advocacy by state agencies to reduce over-identification.

49. Inadequate resources targeted at reducing over-identification.

50. Inadequate data on how placements are made, how they vary, and who is  involved.

Misidentification Psychology

In 2009, the National Association of School Psychologists published an article by Sullivan et al. on school education disproportionality. The problem of minority over-identification is long standing. “National data on Black students are especially disconcerting because they reveal that Black students are not only at greater risk for identification, but also for restrictive placements and disciplinary consequences” (School Psychologist).

A literature survey suggested some possible causes. School readiness might be a factor, along with unequal curriculum opportunities. Other factors are inadequate teacher background for cultural differences, lack of varied instructional techniques, biased referrals to special education, low expectations, and misinterpretation of behavioral patterns as abnormal. Structural inequities and racism are factors, together with schools closed to family and community involvement.

When disadvantaged children are placed in special education, the results are often unfavorable: “…over-represented groups are disproportionately affected by negative consequences associated with special education labeling and placement, including stigmatization, lowered expectations, substandard instruction, and less rigorous curriculum, as well as isolation from the educational and social curriculum of general education.”

While there is need for systems change, practitioners can work to foster inclusion. “ We have a legal and ethical duty to ensure that students are not misidentified for special education and to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to succeed.”

Castle Solution

In May of 2003, and just prior to IDEA reauntorizaitons, Heartland reviewed recommendations made by House Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle (R-Delaware). He noted that “current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity or reliability.”

The committee proposed reforms in a 292 page proposal, The Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act. Key points:

1. “Emphasizing early intervention strategies aimed at correcting reading deficiencies before children are identified as disabled. School districts would be granted flexibility to use up to 15 percent of their federal IDEA funds for such pre-referral services.

2. Strengthening parents’ control over decisions regarding their child’s education by allowing them to bypass process-heavy regulations pertaining to the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

3. Eliminating “IQ discrepancy” models for identifying children with disabilities.

4. Reducing heavy paperwork demands currently placed on special education teachers.

5. Easing federal regulations dictating how school officials are permitted to discipline special education students. The new rules would allow uniform discipline for all children and would no longer prohibit school officials from expelling or suspending special education students when they consider it necessary to ensure school safety.”

____________ School Speech Pathology Blog ____________

PA Solution

In 2002, Dr. Joseph F. Kovaleski provided Congress with testimony based on his administrative experience in Pennsylvania. He sized up the over-identification problem this way:

” The issue that we are addressing today, the reform of the special education referral and identification process, has been a controversial and important one since I entered the field of special education 25 years ago. We have long understood that too many students have been over-identified as having learning disabilities. We have seen limited funds for special education overwhelmed by too many students in the system. As students have been found eligible for special education, we have seen general education come to an understanding that it has little responsibility for students with even transient academic and behavior problems. Many teachers have come to believe that any student with any difficulty may have hidden disabilities that prevent them from succeeding in the regular classroom.”

Dr. Kovaleski made recommendations for reform:

1. “Referrals for special education eligibility screening can be greatly reduced by using an effective prereferral intervention model.” Prereferral intervention programs should be developed within general education.

2. “The testing process itself, as it is typically implemented, leads to over-identification.” The “refer-test-place” practice leads to different kinds of placement errors.

3. “The best way to identify the right students as eligible for special education is by appraising their response to effective instruction… There is now a 20-year history of research and practice in methods that would allow schools to identify students as eligible for special education through an evaluation of their response to effective instruction.”

4. “There needs to be a fully funded early literacy program that provides intensive intervention for students who are at risk for not learning to read by the third grade.” Preschool intervention programs, making use of effective literacy programs, can reduce the number of pupils later identified as learning disabled.

5. “There needs to be coordination at the federal, state, and local levels among federal programs that address overlapping issues such as the development of literacy.” Mixed school funding sources fragment programs, and various specialists work together in an uncoordinated manner, negating the effects of early programs.

6. “Teachers, administrators, and related services personnel address students’ needs best when they work together in prereferral teams like instructional support teams…As schools endeavor to provide services so that all children receive effective educational programs, coordination through a core team, like an instructional support team, is extremely beneficial.”

7. “The screening and early identification process needs to address students’ emotional and behavioral needs as well as their academic needs….We will need to provide teachers and other school staff with the necessary professional development to address these behaviors through positive behavioral supports.”

Heinz Solution

Joe Smydo, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (October 23, 2009), reported on a major study of the effects of pre-kindergarten classes on the early education of poor and developmentally-delayed children vulnerable for special education placement. The study lasted three years and involved 10,000 children. Results indicated a boost in the development of social and academic skills. The children improved in math, literacy and social skills. The study was supported by The Heinz Endowments.

Girl Scouts Marching on Main Street.

Pre-K programs are sometimes dropped by school administrators but the study showed:

1. “Pre-K Counts classes benefited children of various racial and ethnic groups.

2. Classes rated high-quality had more dramatic effects on children than those judged to be of lower quality.

3. Despite poverty and other disadvantages, 80 percent of children in the study demonstrated skills necessary for success in kindergarten — well above what would have been expected without the program.

4. While the participating school districts traditionally placed 18 percent of high-risk children in special-education programs in kindergarten, only about 2 percent of Pre-K Counts children required those services.

5. The children in the study ranged in age from 3 to 6 and attended classes for four to 24 months. Those who spent more time in the classes had larger gains than peers who attended for shorter periods.”

The Heinz study adds weight to the recommendations of IDEA 2004 for early invention. The reduction in special education placements is remarkable. One policy implication is whether local schools have the capacity to shift resources toward early support. IDEA allows flexible funding but pre-kindergarten education is not a traditional school priority.

____________ School Speech Pathology Blog ____________

Massachusetts Solution

Matthew Deninger looks at special education and race in Massachusetts, the problem of “disproportionality.” “Despite these positive trends and obvious success stories, there are aspects of the special education system where much work remains. Disproportionality is one of those areas.” Mitigating strategies are mentioned:

1. Awareness of bias within the IEP Team:

“Are students from certain backgrounds more susceptible to particular disabilities, or are the IEP Teams charged with determining a student’s eligibility exhibiting some kind of bias when identifying disabilities? As the body of research grows in this area, we are better able to understand and contextualize this phenomenon. For instance, researchers have found that IEP Team bias is a factor. When teachers or parents refer a student to be evaluated for disabilities, they typically make their own informal diagnosis (“That kid definitely has ADD…”). After evaluative testing has been completed, these same teachers and parents are involved in deciding whether or not the student has a disability, and a self-fulfilling prophecy can ensue that reflects acceptable community norms.

2. Child study teams are helpful:

When a student struggles, a teacher can refer him or her to a child study team instead of referring the student directly to the special education department and asking for an evaluation. Child study teams are composed of both general education teachers and specialists, and it is their job to consult with the teacher and suggest classroom strategies that may benefit the student. After a few weeks of implementing these strategies, the child study team meets with the teacher again. If the strategies worked and the student shows progress, no special education referral is made. If the strategies do not work, the child study team proposes new ideas and makes more suggestions. Only after the child study team has exhausted its “bag of tricks” and has seen no progress in the student’s situation is a referral for a special education evaluation finally made. By focusing on instructional strategies that the general education teacher can employ, child study teams help prevent disproportionate numbers of students from being unnecessarily evaluated for disabilities.

3. Early social and pre-social skills work:

New York City, Baltimore, and several other large school districts teach social skills to preschool and early elementary school students as part of the curriculum. Students learn appropriate ways to resolve and prevent conflicts and to behave appropriately in a variety of contexts. Studies show that such interventions help students who are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems. Early organizational skill development too has been useful in preventing learning difficulties and the exacerbation of learning disabilities.

4. Professional development in differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency:

In order for the general education classroom teacher to be able to reach all students of all abilities and learning styles, high quality professional development is necessary in two main areas: differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency. Differentiated instruction responds to the individual needs of learners by presenting information in a variety of ways, engaging students in a variety of learning activities, and using a variety of assessments to draw on each student’s strengths. Cultural proficiency encourages teachers to build relationships with all students, let students know that they are valued, and acknowledge individual and group differences to create an environment of trust and mutual respect.”


After IDEA 2004 was enacted, regulations to control misidentification were disseminated by the Office of Special Education Programs (2/2/07). The regulations were entitled, DISPROPORTIONALITY AND OVERIDENTIFICATION. The document presented regulations communicated to all states. It is up to the states to communicate the regulations to local schools (SEAs).


“The State must have in effect…policies and procedures designed to prevent the inappropriate overidentification or disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity of children as children with disabilities, including children with disabilities with a particular impairment…”

Each State … and the Secretary of the Interior… must provide for the collection and examination of data to determine if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring in the State and the local educational agencies (LEAs) of the State with respect to:

The identification of children as children with disabilities, including the identification of children as children with disabilities in accordance with a particular impairment described in…the Act;

The placement in particular educational settings of these children; and

The incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions.

In the case of a determination of significant disproportionality with respect to the identification of children as children with disabilities, or the placement in particular educational settings of these children….the State or the Secretary of the Interior must:

Provide for the review and, if appropriate revision of the policies, procedures, and practices used in the identification or placement to ensure that the policies, procedures, and practices comply with the requirements of the Act.

Require any LEA identified… reserve the maximum amount of funds …to provide comprehensive coordinated early intervening services to serve children in the LEA, particularly, but not exclusively, children in those groups that were significantly overidentified under… of the IDEA regulations; and

Require the LEA to publicly report on the revision of policies, practices, and procedures described…

(Suspension deleted)

The State must monitor the LEA’s located in the State, using quantifiable indicators in each of the following priority areas, and using such qualitative indicators as are needed to adequately measure performance in those areas, [including] disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in special education and related services, to the extent the representation is the result of inappropriate identification” (

Ed Solution to Misidentification

The U. S. Department of Education enforces IDEA regulations, in support of Congressional mandates, and here is are techniques for making sure misidentification is avoided. An example:

“In April 2003, OCR launched a nationwide initiative to conduct compliance reviews in school districts around the country on the issue of the misidentification of minority students in special education. The initiative also focused on ensuring that national origin minority students are not referred for evaluation or placed in special education programs based on their limited English proficiency….

For example, in some of our reviews resolved in FY 2004, school districts were found in noncompliance with applicable requirements of the Section 504 and Title II implementing regulations with respect to pre-referral interventions, evaluation, and placement in the least restrictive environment.

In a resolution agreement, the district agreed to provide staff training and resource support for interventions, implement a system of record-keeping, and actively monitor the intervention process in the schools. It further agreed to develop guidelines, monitor and provide training in the areas of referral, evaluation, and eligibility determination. The district agreed to review the placements of all students currently identified as Educable Mentally Handicapped (EMH) and Emotionally Handicapped (EH), reevaluate if appropriate, and exit with transition services those students who do not meet eligibility criteria. The district also agreed to develop guidelines regarding least restrictive environment and relevant placement criteria and to assess the variations among the district’s schools. It will review placements of all EMH and EH students currently in separate special education classes for more than 50 percent of the instructional day and, where appropriate, initiate changes in placement.”

The Department of Education techniques are available to all states and local school districts to minimize over-identification:

1. Staff training
2. Resource support
3. System of record-keeping
4. Active monitoring of intervention
5. Guidelines for referral, evaluation and
eligibility determination
6. Review of placements for exits
7. Review for least restrictive environment
8. Review variations among district’s schools
9. Review placements by categories

Responsibility is clearly placed on administrators. It is exceptionally difficult for the school psychologist, reading specialist or speech-language pathologist to take the leadership role.

No comments are made about monitoring IEP team decisions.