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ESSA, Accountability, and Personalized Learning: Implementing Response to Intervention at the High School Level

Monday, December 4, 2017 -- Winnie O'Leary

Response to intervention (RTI) is a skills-based, growth- and mastery-focused approach that has been used in elementary schools for a long time—and the research is there to prove it works. With implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it’s also an approach that high schools will likely be expected to adopt much more frequently. ESSA legislation puts additional pressure on schools and districts to be accountable for raising graduation rates for students across subpopulations. Achieving this will require a greater level of personalization for all students, meeting them at their instructional level—regardless of their grade or the course they’re in—and showing meaningful academic growth.

Keep in mind that each state is adopting its own language around intervention, including RTI2, PBIS, MTSS, and other frameworks. All have value in their specifics; however, in this article, we are going to address many of the common needs of these programs and refer to them simply as “RTI.”  Don’t get caught up in the semantics; even if your district isn’t using RTI specifically, this conversation is applicable to intervention programs in general.

As implementation of ESSA progresses, the challenge for content-area teachers at the high school level will be to shift their thinking from standards to skills, as is reflected in the RTI model. Finding the time to accomplish this and absorb best practices of intervention will certainly present a challenge in the credit-based world of high school, but it’s key to improving student outcomes and complying with ESSA requirements.

When adopting an RTI-based approach, it’s important to remember that students come into the classroom with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes already gained through other educational experiences and their daily lives. This knowledge naturally influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust, accurate, and galvanized, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, if this knowledge is skewed or missing certain pieces, it can create a foundational crack in their learning that has a cascading effect. Overcoming these gaps is critical, and RTI seeks to address them quickly and efficiently by offering a framework for regular screening, classroom scaffolding, and effective escalation.

Here are five guiding principles for high school educators looking to implement a response to intervention approach in any academic or behavioral program. 

1. The majority of students’ educational needs can be met through research-driven instructional practices within core or tier 1 instruction.

Consider the general instruction of content at any grade level your first step in intervention. Using educationally sound teaching strategies while exposing students to content and providing flexible means for instruction and assessment can head off the need for targeted intervention for most students. Remember that integrating research-driven instruction is at the core of the RTI approach. Content instruction at the high school level typically emphasizes alignment with state standards rather than building upon individual students’ skills and gaps. However, by weaving research-based instructional strategies, such as scaffolding, differentiated instruction, ongoing formative assessment, and embedded literacy, students in need of only minor support can easily be addressed in the general classroom. Using readily available resources and tools to intentionally address skill gaps as part of general instruction can help students build bridges to new content. Besides, it’s just smart teaching to incorporate some common support elements into general instruction.

Here are a few ideas to get started within the general high school classroom, no matter the content area:

  • Provide students with the organizational structure of the course, even if this is something as simple as a course outline or syllabus
  • Share the organization of each day’s lecture, lab, or discussion explicitly (what will the class be doing today, and how will the class go about accomplishing it?)
  • Make connections among concepts explicit, connect to previous learning, and always provide a foundation to the day’s instruction
  • Ask students to draw a concept map to expose their understanding of how course material is organized, and help them build ownership over their learning

2. Screen students to identify those in need of more intensive instruction, provided in the form of interventions.

A universal screener creates a baseline, and it’s essential in the RTI approach. It provides a valuable data point that helps teachers understand students’ previous knowledge in relation to classroom and standards expectations. Although a substantial amount of research exists indicating that screening and progress monitoring are effective practices at the elementary level, studies examining these practices at the high school level are only now emerging.  Despite the lack of empirical evidence, professional knowledge and wisdom continue to emphasize the importance of ongoing data collection to overall school improvement. The more you know, the better you can address the needs of every student, tailor your instruction, and determine when more intensive interventions are required.

In lieu of more sophisticated screening measures developed specifically for high school use, utilizing state assessments or monitoring student’s completion data, such as passing classes like algebra, can feed the data story. However, this is a much more reactionary approach. Ideally, best practices call for a universal screener whose data are used to identify which tier of intervention a student requires, but without that, using the data from other measures can support students in identifying their appropriate instructional level. Students naturally make connections between different pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students are better able to retrieve and apply their knowledge effectively and efficiently. Assessments help teachers evaluate these knowledge structures, provide guidance to build on the connections students have already made, and determine a path to standards mastery. 

3. Leverage formative assessments and progress monitoring to continuously gauge student understanding.

An RTI-based approach encourages educators to continually ask, “Does the instruction I am providing help students make connections between the content?” Frequent formative assessment helps make this possible.

To be successful in the classroom and beyond, students must develop not only the fundamental skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, but they must also practice combining and integrating that information to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Ultimately, it all comes down to application. For teachers, this means to always need to keep skills mastery in mind. Formative assessments and progress monitoring yields data to assess students’ learning and academic performance, and determine whether a specific intervention will be productive for particular students. These data need to be referred to on an ongoing basis, so having a process that is integrated into the general classroom instruction is key. This can take a wide range of forms, including diagnostic measures, curriculum-based measures, class quizzes and tests, or more formal benchmarks. Results should then be used to adjust instruction and address fragile skills or gaps in understanding. 

However, using data to group and/or reteach content often presents challenges to high school content-area teachers, who are typically expected to accomplish a very set scope of standards in a very limited amount of time. Borrowing from the tried-and-true elementary approach of station rotation or “center time” can be an effective way to overcome time constraints. Try instituting this approach once a week to start, and during this time, give students multiple options, utilizing different resources available to you (e.g., online programs, print materials, makerspace) to work on the content at hand. Students in need of specific supports can be directed toward the appropriate station, and teachers are freed up to work one on one or with small groups of students as needed. Plus, giving students increased ownership over the format of their instruction can lead to more motivation (bonus points if students are involved in tracking their own data as well!).

4. Remember that not all struggling students need to be referred to special education.

High school teachers are under enormous pressure to have students meet state standards in specific content areas. In an RTI context, the emphasis on scientifically based instruction means that teachers will be encouraged to shift their focus and examine their teaching practices to differentiate instruction and fill students’ learning gaps. Looking at student data and understanding when a student is “ready to learn” moves the teacher away from simply following a predetermined scope and sequence to providing instruction within the context of their specific learners and the connections they have (and have not) made. Although it may feel counterintuitive at first, such attention will enhance success in helping students meet standards.

It has been a common practice in secondary schools to help struggling students by referring them directly to special education programs without first trying any different or more flexible instructional approaches in the general classroom. Not only is this solution costlier, but it also involves labeling students with a disability, which they may not possess. Not all students who need intervention truly qualify for special education services, yet if they do not qualify, they are left without other options. They are still struggling but not eligible for support. By adopting an RTI approach, schools have a mechanism for helping struggling students make the progress they’re expected to, prior to referrals to special services. Furthermore, for students who do need special education services, better identification and monitoring practices will be in place and supports will already exist in general classrooms to ease the transition, increasing the possibility of inclusive learning.

Working with a school-based team to use student performance data to identify and define learning difficulties and styles, to implement interventions, and to evaluate the effects of these interventions, moves students who need support out of the instructional pit of not qualifying for special services. By offering a variety of instructional methods and moving away from the traditional lecture-and-test classroom format, RTI opens the door to allowing students to make connections and apply previous knowledge at the pace that’s right for them.

5. Leverage creative methods of instruction and assessment to meet the needs of all students.

An RTI approach encourages educators to consider the needs of individual students and focus on prior knowledge and skill gaps to make meaningful progress. Doing so involves much more than leveraging small-group instruction and implementing tiers; adopting the principles of Universal Design for Learning can be key to make the necessary (and effective) adjustments to instruction and meet ESSA requirements.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for designing curriculum that provides all students with equal opportunities to learn. It is intended to serve all learners, regardless of ability, limitation, age, gender, or cultural and linguistic background. It requires educators to look at the whole student instead of considering the student through a subject-specific lens. This “whole child” approach is an important part of ESSA legislation and accountability. Critical components of UDL for the classroom teacher include:

  • Goal setting
  • Assessment
  • Instructional methods
  • Materials and resources

The good news is that UDL is not in conflict with other methods and practices. It actually incorporates and supports many current research-based approaches to teaching and learning, and the overlap with RTI framework is significant. We must know where we are starting in order to create appropriate goals and monitor what we are teaching to be sure that the instruction has impact. Much like RTI, UDL calls on educators to vary the resources and instructional methods used to meet the needs of students at their level and personalize content.

The UDL framework is grounded in three principles:

  • Multiple means of representation (the “what of learning) – using a variety of methods to present information, providing a range of means to support
  • Multiple means of action and expression (the “how” of learning) – providing learners with alternative ways to be successful and demonstrate what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning) – tapping into learners’ interests by offering choices of content and tools and motivating them by offering adjustable levels of challenge

As implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act continues, the push for personalized learning experiences is sure to grow. High school educators are likely to hear more and more about RTI and similar approaches in order to meet these new requirements for differentiation and, ultimately, student growth. While it certainly represents a significant shift from the credit- and standards-based approaches currently prevalent at the high school level, taking the steps to implement response to intervention frameworks now will pay dividends in the long run both in terms of meeting accountability measures and improving student outcomes.

Interested in learning about how Edmentum’s online programs can support efforts within your high school or district to implement effective interventions? Check out how Edmentum Courseware, Edmentum Assessments, and Study Island can be used in conjunction with classroom practice to successfully pinpoint student needs, address learning gaps, and drive meaningful progress.