Now that the holidays are done and even though it is not yet Spring, the time is now to get ready for what is commonly known as "IEP season." While the thought of the next annual review or domains meeting to decide on a round of evaluations may be enough to provoke an anxiety attack, there are some strategies that can be employed to give you more control and a plan going into the next round of meetings. The following are some useful things to do that I have been using recently as I get ready to represent parents at IEP meetings.
RtI (Response to Therapeutic Intervention) is the big "new" concept that districts have taken up almost to the exclusion of more formal standardized testing. One of the important things to remember is that RtI did not eliminate psychological testing. While many districts have read the law and regulations in an overly broad manner, standardized testing is time-tested and an important means of getting at a student's needs; too many districts are ignoring their child find obligations to undertake a comprehensive set of evaluations, which includes RtI data points as part this process but also includes standardized testing.
One of the questions that districts ask when I request standardized testing, is what would that get us that RtI does not provide. RtI provides data to schools, and to some extent parents, on what is happening or not happening for a student. He or she is reading faster, with more comprehension, more words in sentences, etc. However, it does not give us much insight into why and what is going on that is leading to a lack of progress. Cognitive processes like memory, processing speed, scatter between various intelligence subtest probes and issues related to executive functioning (e.g. BRIEF or NEPSY assessments) are simply not revealed through any RtI data that schools commonly use.
I frequently use a medical analogy to illustrate the point. RtI is like blood pressure, temperature and stethoscope data , but those alone do not tell the medical profession everything they need to know. All of those data points could be normal and you could still be very ill. Without more probing the true nature and extent of the problem would be a mystery.
Prior to your next meeting, gather up all of the RtI data that you have and ask for any that you do not have, such as DIBELS or Aimsweb for reading fluency (rate of reading words correctly), Aimsweb Maze or other measures regarding reading comprehension, MAP/NWEA for reading lexile levels (see lexile.com) and math levels, other probes that probe correct writing sequences and correct number digits. I have a particular issue with these last two measures--writing sequences and correct number digits. Students can score well on both of these measures and still not perform well in a real life manner. For instance, correct digits will give the student credit for an equation like 110 + 25 even if the answer given is 115 because the first and last digits are correct, and the sum is totally wrong. The same kind of problem can occur with correct writing sequences; the writing can be well below par, but the data can be positive.
Always match the data to the actual work product and the subjective experience that you know as a parent. If the child is reading quickly with lots of mistakes and limited understanding there is a problem. Moreover, fluency probes are not very useful if the school team is never doing "error analysis" and adjusting instruction accordingly. That is, if the errors are consistently for words with a /g/ in the final position, then instruction and goals need to reflect that issue. If the students’ writing is limited because of lack of elaboration, spelling, punctuation, etc., then instruction/goals need to be adjusted accordingly, even if the correct writing sequences show an upward line. The data is only useful to the extent it squares with some real experience in the classroom and at home. School personnel too often overlook this incongruence and it is important for parents to be vigilant to this glaring mistake.
Another huge problem with RtI, as written in IDEIA and federal and many states regulations, is that the timeframes and other specifics regarding implementation are left undefined. How long should a student remain in RtI before a referral is made for a case study? What is considered the end goal of RtI interventions, such as to close the "learning gap"? Is the goal the 50th percentile for reading fluency, for instance, which is considered normative? What curriculum should be used as a student moves through the tiers of RtI? These are among the many questions that remain open and unanswered in the law and regulations. However, I have frequently found that the school’s website and required RtI policies answer many if not all of these questions.
From an advocacy stand point, school district policies and school websites can be a bonanza of information and provide significant leverage in negotiating with the school. For instance, a school’s website states that the "aim line," the expected rate of progress should be at the 50th percentile by the end of the year. If the school team sets the aim line for a particular student at the 15th percentile, which is where he or she had been for several years or even many months, this violation of policy reveals the student is not closing the gap and is in fact effectively regressing relative to the norms, and the team is ignoring school policy. Answers related to timeframes and curriculum to be provided at various tiers are frequently revealed on the website or school district policy statements. Discerning violations in terms of exceeding timeframes, not using prescribed curriculum and not setting the expected rate of progress to close the gap, can be critical. While every case is different, such violation can lead to parents successfully arguing for more effective and intensive interventions for your student and possibly reimbursement for private services. (I am expressly not rendering any legal opinion on any particular case or expected outcome).
Getting ready for this next round of meetings means getting the data, understanding what it means and whether it squares with objective reality. Be sure to ask if the district is doing any kind of error analysis so the data will meaningfully drive goals and instruction. Review your state’s RtI regulations and policies and your school’s policies and website relative to the expected rate of progress, curriculum and time frames. Are the school personnel following the regulations or policies? If not, prepare a written document laying out your concerns in a factual manner and demand appropriate remedies. As to this last point, you may want to consult an experienced advocate or attorney who practices in this area to make sure you are on target in your argument.