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Navigating pandemic challenges: Identifying special education needs

Here's how students with special education services can make up for unfinished learning — and stay on track in the future.

6 min read


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This post is sponsored by Illuminate Education 

Even in the best of times, monitoring students’ progress and administering assessments with fidelity can be a challenge. Add in the inconsistency and uncertainty set off by the pandemic and it’s even more difficult to determine when students require special education services versus when Tier 1 instruction or Tier 2 supports need to be intensified.

Illuminate Education talked with its Executive Director of Professional Learning, Dr. Sarah Brown, and Wendy Stuttgen, Associate Director of Literacy at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement about how students with special education services can make up for unfinished learning — and stay on track in the future.

Considerations in an era of disrupted learning

The aftereffects of disrupted learning within remote, hybrid, and in-person classrooms during the past two years cannot be underestimated. We know that for many students there have been lapses in progress even if they previously made gains by intervention programs — some of which were interrupted due to the logistical challenges of remote learning. 

However, while more students might be in need of enhanced instruction and interventions, there are best practices for ensuring students receive the help they need while also reducing unnecessary special education referrals and potential over-identification.

Below are seven steps educators can take this semester to identify learning gaps and address these issues:

Step 1: Collect winter universal screening data

It is not too late to identify needs among the total student population by conducting universal screening this winter–we recommend doing so by March 1. Such assessments not only provide educators with broad-stroke analyses of where kids are, but they also are an efficient tool for uncovering issues and designating resources. Fortunately, technology tools like FastBridge can help quickly target needs to allow interventions to begin immediately after screening.

Step 2: Review and act on Tier 1 data first

The major benefit of conducting universal screening is discovering if there are issues affecting more than just a few students with special needs. For example, if fewer than 80% of students meet the target benchmark, educators should intensify Tier 1 core instruction. 

As Stuttgen explains: “Before ever collecting any diagnostic data, teachers can use patterns of student performance through universal screening to form intervention groups.” 

Step 3: Tier 2 interventions should be reserved for the lowest-performing students

Provide targeted group interventions for students at-risk in reading and/or math and track progress to goals over 6 to 12 weeks with weekly or biweekly monitoring. Determine the number of students your school can provide interventions to based upon the specific intervention recommendations. Ensure that the period frequency and duration, as well as the group size, is aligned with program recommendations to set students up for success. When you have more students who need intervention then you have intervention resources to provide, rely on Tier 1 intervention to intensify supports for all students. 

 “Use screening data to dig deeper into determining supplemental intervention needs when students are missing some of those necessary foundational skills,” says Stuttgen.

Step 4: Review Tier 2 intervention results

If, after the initial progress monitoring data points are collected, most students in the group intervention are on track to meet goals, the intervention is considered effective and students should exit once goals have been met. However, if a majority of students are not making adequate gains, it is time to consider if there are group differences.

“When we think about the purpose of intervention, including specially designed instruction, we  intend to close achievement gaps,” says Brown. “Characteristics such as increasing the intensity of instruction and being responsive to student data by individual and by group are essential to those efforts and achieving these outcomes.”

Step 5: Examine group differences

If most or all of the students in a group are not making adequate progress, intensify the intervention for the entire group. If some students are making progress, and others are not, explore whether there are progress differences for students who were fully remote last year versus those who were in hybrid or onsite classrooms. If there are differences in growth between the two groups (e.g. if last year’s remote learners aren’t making as much progress as the other group) intensify the intervention for that group of students. 

For example, consider providing them with an additional five to 10 minutes of teacher-led practice during independent learning time.

“Once students have received targeted, high-quality interventions for enough time for the instructional package to show growth, teams should review and respond to both group and student progress,” says Stuttgen. “Many times in special education we’re used to considering individual student needs and we forget to build team practices that can positively impact progress.” 

Step 6: Implement Tier 3 interventions

Slow or no growth despite effective intervention could be an indication of a learning disability, but before jumping to that conclusion, students with low ROI should first receive a more targeted and individualized Tier 3 intervention.

If, after implementing a more individualized, intensified intervention for 6 to 12 weeks, the student’s progress is still low, teams should decide whether or not a disability is suspected.

Step 7: If a disability is suspected, conduct a comprehensive evaluation

A comprehensive evaluation may be the next step if a student’s ROI during intervention is persistently low and indicates that the student will not catch up to the grade-level goal.

“This may be the special educator in me, but there is never a bad time and maybe rarely a better time to focus a staff meeting on special education,” says Brown. “A discussion can be had of what it means when we diagnose a student with a disability, and to explain the bigger picture of how our Multi-Tiered System of Supports for all students and staff can help with making these high stakes decisions.” 

For more strategies and considerations about how you can use progress monitoring to know if the interventions are effective in helping students achieve their IEP learning goals, download the free eBook: Progress Monitoring in Special Education.

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