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The three-tier structure is often illustrated as a three-tier pyramid with Tier 1 at the bottom and Tier 3 at the top. A four-tier approach is another option. The fourth tier indicates the referral process used to evaluate students for a potential special education need. The focus herein will be on the three-tier model as it is the most common.

The components that make up Tier 1 create a solid foundation for RTI. The basis of Tier 1 is a high-quality, guaranteed, and viable curriculum including standards-based instruction supported by research-based materials.

The regular education classroom is the setting for Tier 1. Within Tier 1, teachers commit to devoting time to each subject and curricular fidelity. The time commitment typically includes a minimum of ninety minutes of reading per day as this gives the appropriate time for content, concepts, and application of understanding. The strong emphasis on reading is due to federal legislation regarding state testing and accountability in those two areas. Mandated state testing takes place in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school.

An expectation of Tier 1 is the use of instructional strategies that have proven to be effective. RTI encourages teachers to vary instruction to create a constant atmosphere of learning. Therefore, strategies should include flexible grouping, small-group instruction and support, and differentiated instructional techniques.

Another key component of Tier 1 is universal screening, which generates data tied to standards. The data are used to compare students to their grade-level peers to measure individual success. All students participate in the same assessment, typically three times per year. to measure growth and to identify those who are experiencing challenges. In advance of the assessment, a school or district team identifies scores that indicate a student is struggling and may need an additional intervention, a change in teaching strategy, small-group support, or differentiation. Anyone performing below this point should be monitored.

Formative assessment, another essential component, supports students at all RTI tiers. Formative assessment is the process of using quality assessments to measure student understanding, collecting data to record student progress, and making instructional decisions based on the data. At Tier 1, formative assessment data are used to guide instruction to meet the needs of various students. Multiple types of assessments are needed to create a complete picture of student understanding, and the teacher must keep records of student progress.

Students who do not make acceptable progress in Tier 1 are provided with Tier 2 support. This occurs only after it is clear that instructional and curricular fidelity are evident, appropriate amounts of time have been devoted to the subject area, classroom interventions have been unsuccessful, and attempts have been made to respond to the needs of the students, but methods, although appropriately implemented, did not result in acceptable student growth.

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