Tier 3 of the RTI Model: Problem Solving Through a Case Study Approach


Sawyer Hunley & Kathy McNamara

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  • Dedication

    Dedicated to the memory of my son, Kyle


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    Old wine in new skins. In many ways, this text is an apt reflection of this metaphor: For years, the tenets of applied behavioral analysis and behavioral consultation have informed the services that many of us, as school psychologists, have attempted to provide to children, teachers, and parents. Dissatisfied with the limitations of the special education gate-keeping role, school psychologists have expanded our understanding and applications of assessment beyond the mission of diagnosing and categorizing disorders. With the advent of the response to intervention (RTI) framework for our services, we find—perhaps for the first time—a vehicle that is sufficiently flexible and practical to accommodate these tenets in schools, uniting general and special education in a common effort to address the needs of all learners. The challenge has been to navigate the “research to practice gap”—that is, to translate foundational principles and methods to everyday work in schools.

    In the RTI model, assessment serves multiple purposes: First, it reveals the impact of instruction and behavior management practices on all students at what has been termed Tier 1. Is the reading curriculum effective in teaching basic and advanced skills? Are students progressing at a rate that will be adequate to attain long-term performance goals? Are students developing social competence, and are they being prepared to successfully meet the demands of adult life? The second purpose of assessment in RTI is to identify students whose level of performance and rate of growth are inadequate: Who is failing, or at risk of failure, in attaining established goals? This is accomplished through the analysis of universal screening and strategic monitoring at Tier 1 and progress-monitoring data gathered for students receiving intervention at Tiers 2 and 3, using assessment methods that directly sample behaviors that are research-based indicators of overall functioning.

    The third purpose of assessment is to examine students' skills and the learning environment to pinpoint needs and deficiencies: What is the reason for this student's performance problem, and how can it be addressed? It is this third purpose of assessment that forms the core of a case study that is the subject of this text. As we proceed upward through the three tiers of the RTI model, assessment becomes more sharply focused not only on qualitative aspects of students' academic and behavioral performance but also on modifiable environmental factors that are functionally (or causally) related to performance problems. Thus, assessment might demonstrate that a student's lack of motivation or practice contributes to lack of fluency in reading, leading to interventions using incentives and frequent opportunities for reading practice. Similarly, a finding that the materials used for instruction are poorly matched to the student's current skill level would point to the need for changes in instructional materials.

    These purposes of assessment are easily understood as both desirable and appropriate in the contemporary practice of school psychology. However, for a variety of reasons, many practitioners lack the knowledge and skills that would enable them to apply methods well suited to these purposes. This text is intended to provide practical guidance to such practitioners. It is not a foundational text in applied behavior analysis, or even in behavioral consultation (which serves as the basis for our model of the case study), and readers interested in more basic instruction in those models are encouraged to consult sources such as Alberto and Troutman (1982) and Bergan and Kratochwill (1990). However, school psychologists who are familiar with basic principles, but lacking in a practical understanding of their applications in practice, will find support in the material contained in this text.

    Readers who prefer to develop their understanding of a concept by moving from part to whole can read this text sequentially, beginning with Chapter 1 and moving through to the end. However, we planned the text by consulting the case study rubric, using it as a guide to generate the content of each chapter. Readers who prefer to start with a holistic understanding of a concept, and then investigate its detailed subset of components, may benefit from first reading the case study rubric and the two case studies presented in Chapter 10. This approach will allow the reader to link the technical material explored in each chapter to the concrete examples already presented in Chapter 10. However the reader chooses to approach the text, it is our hope that it will serve as a comprehensive yet practical guide for students and practitioners alike.

    In the first chapter, the context in which RTI has evolved as well as challenges to early implementation efforts are discussed. Explanations of the manner in which the RTI process addresses these challenges are provided. In Chapter 2, the reader is given a brief tour of Tiers 1 and 2 and shown how activities and findings at these tiers serve as a precursor to the Tier 3 case study. Assessment methods that are appropriate for use in the RTI (and case study) process are discussed in detail. The role of the school psychologist as a problem-solving consultant and systems change agent is described in Chapter 3.

    Chapters 4 through 8 provide a rationale and detailed procedures for conducting the case study at Tier 3. Although chapters treat stages of the case study process discretely, readers are encouraged to view the stages as a holistic approach to assessing and intervening with students at risk for school failure. The problem identification stage described in Chapter 4 uses data gathered at Tiers 1 and 2 to clarify and confirm the severity of student performance problems. It also gathers and synthesizes data leading to hypotheses about the cause of the problem. In Chapter 5, the procedure for hypothesis testing is explained as the key to determining the reason—and an empirically sound solution—for the problem. Chapter 6 describes various single-case designs that can be used for hypothesis testing and monitoring the progress of students receiving interventions. Chapter 7 highlights the practical aspects of selecting and implementing interventions, with emphasis on intervention integrity as a key aspect of a successful case study. A detailed explanation of methods for evaluating case study outcomes is provided in Chapter 8, along with guidelines for deciding whether outcomes are successful.

    The final two chapters of the book address implementation issues. Chapter 9 offers a perspective of special education eligibility determination using the RTI process, with a focus on the nature and outcomes of interventions, as well as the integrity of planning and intervention implementation. Chapter 10 proposes two techniques that can be used for evaluation of case study implementation and outcomes by practitioners or in university training programs. The first technique uses aggregated data across case studies to detect patterns revealing the impact of school psychologists on the students that they serve; the second incorporates a case study evaluation rubric, illustrated with examples of completed case studies.


    The creation of this book has evolved over the years as a result of support by my colleagues, mentors, and friends Jim Evans, Julie Morrison, and Michael Curtis. I am especially grateful to them for sparking the ideas and conversations that encouraged creative responses to unanswered questions. Thanks to Tracy Spires, Dan Trunk, Marjorie Funk, Heather House, and Julie Rabatsky, who have assisted me in researching, developing, and demonstrating the case study rubric. My appreciation goes to the members of the National Association of School Psychologists, the NCSP Board, and Corwin for their contributions to this effort. My profound gratitude goes to my family; they are my cheerleaders when I succeed and when I struggle. Thanks to my parents, Murray and Mary Frances, for showing me the way, and to my husband, Mike, for allowing me to spend countless hours on this project without complaint. Finally, a very special thanks to my daughter, Kristen, who is my confidant and is following in my professional footsteps.


    My students have been a continuing source of challenge and inspiration, convincing me of the need to carefully assemble what I have referenced over the past decade in hastily-scrawled blackboard and PowerPoint diagrams and tables. I am grateful, too, to colleagues who have helped to sharpen my thinking, especially Colleen McMahon, and to those whose patience and support is being rewarded, finally, by the completion of this text—Dan and Caitlin, and Karen. A word of thanks is due to my coauthor, who invited me to join her in this enterprise while we were attending a National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) meeting in the midst of a tropical storm: There's a metaphor in there somewhere! The staff of the NASP, the editorial staff of Corwin, and anonymous reviewers offered suggestions that focused and improved our writing. Finally, for her certain and abiding faith in me—a limitless store from which I drew comfort and confidence for 54 years—I honor the memory of my mother, Mary Ellen.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Gloria Avolio DePaul, PhD
    • School Counselor, NBCT
    • Hillsborough County School District
    • Tampa, FL
    • Rachel Brown Chidsey, PhD, NCSP
    • Associate Professor and Program Coordinator
    • University of Southern Maine
    • Portland, ME
    • Joanne Morgan
    • Doctoral Candidate
    • School Psychology Program
    • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    • Amherst, MA
    • Jane Wagmeister, EdD
    • Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Continuous Improvement
    • RTI Co-Chair Task Force
    • Ventura County Office of Education
    • Camarillo, CA

    About the Authors

    Sawyer Hunley, PhD, NCSP, is an associate professor, the Coordinator of the School Psychology Program, and a Learning Teaching Fellow at the University of Dayton. She is chair of the National Certification Board for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and was instrumental in revising the procedure for obtaining the National Credential of School Psychologists (NCSP). The revised process based on the 2000 NASP Standards includes new case study and portfolio requirements, and was inaugurated in fall, 2005. Dr. Hunley has served as a member of the Program Approval Board for the National Association of School Psychologists, and has participated in the writing of the last three revisions of the NASP Standards. Her professional and research interests include systems change for K–12 and higher education. Her publications and presentations have focused on the nature of the changing field of school psychology, data-based decision making, and the relationship between learning space and teaching/learning. She has over twenty years experience as a school psychologist practitioner, supervisor, and faculty member.

    Kathy McNamara, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University, where she directs the School Psychology Specialist degree program. She currently serves as chair of the Ethics and Professional Practices Committee of the National Association of School Psychologists, and she has been active in the leadership of the Ohio School Psychologists Association since 1984. She has published chapters on social competence and professional ethics in the NASP Best Practices series. Dr. McNamara's research focuses on intervention-based school psychological services, and her work in this area has been published in The School Psychology Review, the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, and Exceptional Children. She has conducted numerous trainings of school psychologists, teachers, and administrators, and consults with school districts regarding implementation of the RTI model. Dr. McNamara has served for 30 years as a school psychologist practitioner, supervisor, and faculty member.

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