Response to Intervention (RTI):
Is There a Role for Assistive Technology?
By Dave L. Edyburn
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 focused national attention on the problems associated
with chronic under-achievement by students with disabilities. As federal and state governments
have sought to reorganize schools to address the problems of poor academic performance, a model
known as Response to Intervention (RTI) has gained favor. RTI models offer a mechanism for de-
signing tiered interventions that become more intensive in response to persistent failure.
As states implement RTI models, it is essential to clarify the relationship of RTI to universal
design for learning (UDL) and assistive technology (AT). In particular, it is necessary to understand
when poor academic performance will trigger consideration of appropriate technology interven-
Special Education Technology Practice 15 January/February 2009
framework, although models involving four or ﬁve
What is RTI? steps can also be found.
Response to intervention comes to education Hoover and Patton (2008) analyzed multiple
from the ﬁeld of health care. It is easy to under- RTI models and summarized the key features of a
stand the notion of intervention and intensive three tier model as follows:
services in the context of illness and disease. Lack
of response to an intervention requires new inter- Tier 1: High-quality core instruction
ventions of greater intensity.
This refers to high-quality, research-based and
In special education, RTI gained acceptance in systematic instruction in a challenging curricu-
the area of positive behavior supports. In this con- lum in general education
text, Tier 1 involves providing appropriate school-
wide rules and supports to all students in order to Expected outcome: Students initially receive qual-
prevent behavior problems. However, we know ity instruction and achieve expected academic
that these techniques will not be effective with all and behavioral goals in the general education
students. Some students will make poor choices, setting.
or otherwise fail to succeed, and therefore warrant
additional intervention (Tier 2). At this level, small Tier 2: High-quality targeted supplemental in-
group interventions may assist some students’ struction
needs and the problem will be solved. However,
a small percentage will demonstrate a persistent This includes targeted and focused interven-
need for intervention. These students would then tions to supplement core instruction.
be provided with intensive and individualized
interventions (Tier 3). The general model is illus- Expected outcome: Students who do not meet
trated in Figure 1. general class expectations and who exhibit need
for supplemental support receive more targeted
In recent years, some experts have been instruction. Learners may receive targeted, Tier
advancing the argument that a key characteristic 2 instruction in the general education classroom
of a learning disability is non-responsiveness to or in other settings in the school such as a pull-
instruction. That is, despite being provided the out situation; however, students receive various
opportunity to learn via high-quality instruction, types of assistance in terms of differentiations,
the student simply does not master the speciﬁc in- modiﬁcations, more specialized equipment,
structional objective. Rather than revert back to the and technology to target instructional needs.
historical practice of removing struggling learners Critical within Tier 2 is the documentation of a
from the general classroom, RTI seeks to enhance student’s responses to the interventions used,
classroom instruction through the implementation which serves as important prereferral deci-
of research-based instructional interventions (Brad- sion-making data should more formal special
ley, Danielson, & Doolittle, 2007). These actions are education assessment be determined necessary.
based on the assumption that we can prevent learn- Students who make insufﬁcient progress in Tier
ing problems by providing high-quality instruction 2 are considered for more intensive specialized
to all students. However, by also implementing interventions and/or formal special education
progress monitoring, we can quickly determine if assessment.
any student is not beneﬁtting from instruction and
work to provide additional, more intensive, inter- Tier 3: High-quality intensive intervention
ventions (Tier 2). At times there is some confusion
about RTI given its application in the context of This includes more specialized interventions to
learning disabilities versus school-wide use. meet signiﬁcant needs, including various dis-
The U.S. Department of Education does not
support any one model of RTI. As a result, a num- Expected outcome: Tier 3 provides students who
ber of models have been developed to describe the have more signiﬁcant needs with intensive,
relationship between general and specialized inter- evidence-based interventions within a range of
ventions. In general, most models involve a tertiary possible educational settings (pp. 196-197).
Special Education Technology Practice 16 January/February 2009
Understanding Student Where Does Technology Fit into
Performance Data From Three RTI Models?
Descriptions of RTI typically make little men-
Before examining how technology ﬁts into RTI tion of technology. Unfortunately, this communi-
models, it is necessary to understand that student cates a message that technology is not a core tool to
performance data is viewed differently in the be used when designing interventions within each
context of assistive technology, universal design for tier. However, let’s consider three common forms
learning, and RTI. This insight has important impli- of technology and analyze their application within
cations for understanding how and when technol- RTI.
ogy might be viewed as a performance support
solution (Edyburn, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c). Universal Design for Learning
In assistive technology, a concern about a The emphasis of universal design for learn-
student’s performance is subjectively noted and ing on proactively valuing differences makes it an
converted into a referral. A referral triggers an excellent Tier 1 strategy since it will enhance access
assistive technology evaluation. Data may be col- and performance for all students. Data from uni-
lected at this point associated with the student’s versal screenings will help instructional designers
present level of performance and his or her perfor- build supports and scaffolds into the instructional
mance with various assistive technology devices. environment have the potential to prevent academ-
Ultimately, a device may be purchases based on ic failure. As a result, it appears that universal de-
the recommendations of the evaluation. Typically, sign for learning and RTI can be aligned easily and
followup and follow-along data are not collected effectively. The shortcomings of universal design
on a regular basis so it is difﬁcult or impossible to for learning’s failure to provide student perfor-
assess outcome. Assistive technology assessment mance data are overlooked in favor of its contribu-
protocols tend to be informal inventories such as tions in the area of class-wide interventions.
the WATI Assessment (http://www.wait.org/
Products/pdf/Assessment_Forms_only.pdf) and Instructional Technology
therefore do not integrate with school-wide perfor-
mance data systems. Clearly there are many attributes (e.g., feed-
back, error correction, pedagogical agents) of
In RTI, data is routinely collected and evalu- well-designed technology tools and online in-
ated. Universal screenings are administered to all structional materials that can support and engage
students in order to gain an early alert of students struggling learners. As a result, instructional
who may struggle. Progress monitoring tools are technology appears to have application in each RTI
used to collect data at regular intervals and the tier. The primary challenge will be those associ-
data are plotted. Performance is evaluated in terms ated with technology integration (i.e., identifying
of the trend line and a goal line to provide visual instructional goals, searching for appropriate tools,
evidence about progress. Assessment protocols evaluating, purchasing, training, and routine use).
are commercially available (http://www.student- Instructional technologies may not include robust
progress.org/chart/chart.asp) and are designed data collection and student performance monitor-
to provide data at the school, classroom, and ing features. However, when they do, these types
individual student level. As a result, RTI provides of products are more likely to be readily adopted
an excellent context for measuring student perfor- by schools implementing RTI.
In current models of universal design for
learning, student performance data is not collected Given the problem that poor performance oc-
or evaluated. Likewise, there are no assessment curs in all three tiers, when does poor performance
systems to measure and report on student progress trigger consideration of assistive technology?
in a universally designed learning environment. Clearly, some forms of assistive technology (e.g.,
mobility aids, communication tools, motor and
Special Education Technology Practice 17 January/February 2009
sensory access tools) should be provided outside
of the RTI model because it is clear that students Selected Resources for Learning
will not be able to access, engage, or beneﬁt from More About RTI
instruction in the general curriculum without these
tools. Johnson, E., Mellard, D.F., Fuchs, D., & McK-
night, M.A. (2006). Responsiveness to intervention
What happens when assistive technology (e.g., (RTI): How to do it. Lawrence, KS: National Re-
text to speech) is provided to all students in Tier 1? search Center on Learning Disabilities. Available
This is a challenging question. In many respects, at: http://www.nrcld.org/rti_manual/
this issue reﬂects the paradigm shift that is pres-
ently underway in the ﬁeld of special education National Center on Response to Intervention
technology and is being accelerated by the pressure http://www.rti4success.org
to close the achievement gap. However, by deﬁni-
tion, it seems that when an assistive technology is RTI Action Network
provided to all students, it ceases to be assistive http://www.rtinetwork.org/
and becomes a universal design support. It seems
unlikely that assistive technology, as we now know RTI Wire
it, will play a fundamental role in RTI Tier 1. http://www.jimwrightonline.com/php/rti/
Failure to perform as expected in Tier 1 can
serve as a trigger for assistive technology consid-
eration and meets the deﬁnition of more intensive have failed to enable the individual to perform at a
interventions associated with Tier 2. Therefore, satisfactory level.
consideration of assistive technology in Tier 2
seems to be appropriate. Edyburn (2007) has
argued that it is critical to ask the remediation vs. Concluding Thoughts
compensation question: How do we determine
what percentage of time and effort to devote to re- A recent online survey conducted by the RTI
mediation and what percentage of time and effort Action Network (http://www.rtinetwork.org/)
to devote to compensation? That is, how do we de- found that more than 80% of the 800 respondents
cide if the best course of action is remediation (i.e., rated their knowledge about RTI as “minimal to
additional instructional time, different instructional none.” As a result, much more work needs to be
approaches) versus compensation (i.e., recognizing done to build awareness about RTI and to train
that remediation has failed and that compensatory teachers to utilize these types of methodologies.
approaches are needed to produce the desired level
of performance)? Because the question about reme- Advocates of RTI typically have little experi-
diation versus compensation is not asked routinely, ence with technology. As a result, technology is
it is commonly assumed that the only solution is not routinely consider to be an essential tool when
to continue providing instruction and remediation. designing solutions for struggling students. There-
This oversight must be challenged as RTI is imple- fore, technology advocates will need to be much
mented on larger scales. more aggressive to ensure that technology tools
continue to be considered as part of the solution set
When students advance to Tier 3 because of for struggling students. Technology developers will
their failure to meet performance expectations, need to become much more committed to creating
serious attention should be given to altering the products that collect data on student performance
remediation vs. compensation equation so that the and generate reports that clearly communicate
vast majority of the time and effort (70-90%) are student progress.
devoted to enhancing performance through com-
pensation with assistive technology. Two reasons il- Some forms of assistive technology appear
lustrate why a change in strategy is need: (1) failure necessary outside of the RTI model. It remains to
to meet performance expectations at this point will be seen how the ﬁeld of assistive technology will
take away time from future learning opportuni- address this issue. As readers gain a deeper under-
ties and, (2) there is overwhelming evidence that standing of the change strategies occurring in their
traditional instruction and remediation efforts local school district concerning the implementation
Special Education Technology Practice 18 January/February 2009
of RTI, and its impact on the provision of univer- Edyburn, D.L. (2006a). Cognitive prostheses for
sal design for learning and assistive technology students with mild disabilities: Is this what as-
services, leadership is urgently needed to ensure sistive technology looks like? Journal of Special
that technology is included in tiered interventions Education Technology, 21(4), 62-65.
and that appropriate student performance data is
collected to provide evidence to inform decision Edyburn, D.L. (2006b). Re-examining the role of
making. assistive technology in learning. Closing the Gap,
25(5), 10-11, 26.
References Edyburn, D.L. (2006c). Failure is not an option: Col-
lecting, reviewing, and acting on evidence for
Bradley, R., Danielson, L., & Doolittle, J. (2007). using technology to enhance academic perfor-
Responsiveness to intervention: 1997 to 2007. mance. Learning and Leading With Technology,
Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(5), 8-12. 34(1), 20-23.
Edyburn, D.L. (2007). Technology enhanced read- Hoover, J.J., & Patton, J.R. (2008). The role of special
ing performance: Deﬁning a research agenda. educator in a multitiered instructional system.
Reading Research Quarterly, 42(1), 146-152. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(4), 195-202.
The Evidence Base
Map of the 2007 Special Education Technology Literature
SETP subscribers will discover a special
bonus feature in this edition. Enclosed with your
magazine is a copy of the 2007 Map of the Special
Education Technology Literature created by Dave
Some readers may be familiar with Prof.
Edyburn’s annual review of the literature that was
published for many years in the Journal of Special
Education Technology. The map is a new tactic to try
and help special education technology leaders stay
up-to-date on the latest advances in our profession.
For readers that want to be extremely well-in-
formed, the bibliography contains 345 articles that
will provide months of reading pleasure! However,
to help busy professionals locate recently published
articles that are most relevant for your work, I want
to direct your attention to the enclosed poster that
features a map of the 2007 literature. Each article
was assigned a descriptor then clustered into one Hopefully, this new tool will allow you to cre-
of eight categories. The numbers on the map corre- ate a personal reading list that is just the right size
spond with the code number that appears in front and has just the right focus to inform your work
of each article citation in the document. Simply about the latest advances in special education tech-
browse the map to ﬁnd topics of interest and locate nology. If you have comments or questions, send
the speciﬁc articles using the code number. an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special Education Technology Practice 19 January/February 2009