MTSS in a virtual setting?

This post is by guest blogger, Chris Birr, EdS. Birr is a member of the ion Board of Directors, a School Psychologist, MTSS Coordinator and deep thinker. Chris lives in suburban Columbus, Ohio with his wife, two daughters and dog.

Like many, I have seen local school districts release plans and modify plans within a week based on the presence of COVID-19. Sadly, in-person instruction was the objective but when the presence of the virus climbed and safety became an issue, hybrid and virtual education become more likely each day. MTSS will not be a panacea but will provide an efficient and effective framework during times of uncertainty.

The following is an attempt to adhere to a tight framework while providing options to meet the guidelines. When faced with uncertainty, things will become more confusing and disordered, staying with a framework may help focus priorities. However, nothing will be perfect, and providing benefits to students would be considered a major accomplishment from my perspective.

Although the Blueprints from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education are not new, I would argue the document and contents hold up. Most revised versions of the pillars of MTSS (e.g. SAM, National Center for RtI), build on similar major ideas from the Blueprints. The workgroup defined RtI (MTSS) as having the three main pillars (Batsche, et. al, 2005). These pillars hold up and provide a narrow but efficient view of MTSS that most can recall after a few discussions. More elements could allow for more room for interpretation, confusion, and error.

1. High-quality instruction AND intervention is provided to all students

2. Learning rate and level of performance are the primary sources of information for decision making

3. Important decisions are made using student responses to intervention

High-Quality Instruction and Intervention: Explicit and systematic instruction is critical. Take inventory of the curricula and interventions that either has strong local evidence or have a strong research base. Develop a toolbox of interventions/methods that can address all major skill areas (e.g. decoding, fluency, comprehension, computation, math reasoning, writing, social-emotional skills). Find teachers/educators who are comfortable hitting the ground running to deliver interventions for a grade level. Re-arranging virtual groups may be easier than having a teacher learn a new method during this time.

Level of performance. Many schools conduct universal screening assessments seasonally. Now may not be the time to worry about completing a fall assessment unless you are fortunate to be open 100% for all students. A recommendation would be for school teams to examine the last two seasons of data and if possible, combine the last 2-3 seasons of test scores for each student into a spreadsheet or student information system for review by grade level. Identify the students who were off-track before the shutdowns and identify groups with similar skill deficits (e.g. decoding, fluency, computation).

Learning Rate. This is usually where progress monitoring (monitoring of progress really) comes in. Generally, I support adaptive screening assessments (MAP, STAR) but completion may be difficult due to time or virtual settings. For elementary students, I would revert back to the use of Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) measures as General Outcome Measures. Best case, use a virtual set up to administer a CBM over videoconferencing. Systems such as AimsWeb or EasyCBM will likely have this figured out if they do not already have directions. Administer every couple of weeks or once a month to track progress.

Alternate Plan: For systems that cannot move to a new assessment, words per minute could be used with a varying degree of fidelity. Some information is better than no information at all. In elementary schools (Grades 1-6), Hasbrouck and Tindal (2017) released an update of the Oral Reading Fluency norms by grade. Fall, winter, and spring benchmarks are listed and expected growth between seasons can be calculated with simple subtraction, ask your school psychologist for more information.

Even if parents are shown this during a webinar, targets for rate, accuracy, and even prosody could be given so parents could modestly gauge performance. Although texts are not validated such as a CBM system, using a few sources and collecting timed samples provides some idea of how a student is reading aloud. Although not perfect, this could provide information for a data-based discussion between parents and teachers.

For math, schools may be wise to investigate Spring Math to target specific areas of math and track over time. No royalties are gained from this suggestion but this is one of the only math programs that provide targeted instruction, reliable and valid monitoring, and a skill hierarchy.

In writing, provide students with a prompt and give a minute to think and three to five minutes to write. Even counting the numbers of words written will provide a metric to track progress over time.

Important Decisions: Keep students safe. Without needing to say much, times are difficult and people are suffering. Use data for good and show students evidence of growth whenever possible. Use technology to build connections and reduce loneliness and isolation.

At this point, there have been online discussions and tweets about whether high-stakes decisions such as eligibility for special education are valid now. Professionals are struggling with these topics and doing the very best they can. I am confident that almost all educators will make decisions in the best interest of the student while following procedures and laws the best they can.

Bottom line. Schools will look and operate differently this year. Holding tight to a short list of practices may help increase data-based decision-making and improve outcomes for the students who need it most. Above all, stay safe and look out for one another.