Tiering is an integral part of any Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework. Not only does it help educators identify which students require additional support, but it also provides insight into the health of a district or school’s MTSS practice. When district and school leaders have visibility into the proportion of students at each tier level and how students are moving across tier levels, they can identify gaps in support and develop strategies to strengthen their intervention approaches.
Although this process may seem straightforward, educators implementing MTSS often find themselves in scenarios where they are uncertain how to proceed. Below, we provide a brief overview of MTSS tier groups and then outline common tiering issues and how they can be addressed.
Tiering in MTSS: A Quick Review
The most common MTSS framework consists of three-tier levels. Tier 1 is the largest group and in a healthy practice, should include approximately 80% of the student population. These students are performing at the expected grade level and are being supported by a differentiated and research-based core curriculum. Tier 2 includes approximately 15% of the student population and consists of students who are performing below grade level and thus require additional support, alongside the ongoing core curriculum. These students are typically supported through small group interventions, and their progress is monitored over time. Finally, Tier 3 comprises approximately 5% of the student population and represents those students performing significantly below grade level. These students require scheduled and targeted one-on-one intervention, in addition to the core classroom curriculum as well as ongoing progress monitoring.
Many districts serving high-risk students find their tier proportions do not match what is expected in a typical MTSS framework. In other words, the majority of their students fall into Tier 3 or Tier 2. This inverted or flipped pyramid creates a big problem for most schools that do not have the capacity to provide intensive support for the majority of their students.
If you find your school in this situation, we recommend focusing on improving Tier 1 support. School leaders should take a critical look at their core curriculum and identify any gaps or areas of concern. Not only is the content essential to examine, but the quality of implementation should be studied closely, as teachers may be struggling to deliver the curriculum with fidelity. Educators can also use the data available to find trends or patterns to bolster the Tier 1 curriculum. For example, if universal screening results show that the majority of early elementary students are struggling with their reading fluency skills, educators can dedicate more time to strengthening this skill among all students.
Besides, schools can provide more flexible Tier 2 support for a larger number of students. Students at the same grade level who are struggling in similar areas should be grouped together and be provided targeted support through evidence-based interventions. Ongoing progress monitoring within these groups will help teachers identify students who are improving and responding to the intervention and those that require more intensive support.
Scenario 2: Students Moving Up in Tier Levels
When tracking students’ tier movement over time, district and school leaders can start to see trends in how their population of students moves across tiers. Any healthy MTSS practice will have students moving both up and down in tier levels, ideally with neutral or net downward movement. However, some schools may notice that they have more students moving up from less intensive tiered support to more intensive tiered support (e.g., Tier 2 to Tier 3).
When the majority of students are moving up in tier levels, it could indicate problems with the quality of support provided at each tier level. For example, if most of the students in Tier 2 move to Tier 3, compared to Tier 1, you should take a closer look at the quantity and quality of Tier 2 support as well as the specific interventions provided at this level. It could also look like a student is not responding to an intervention when in fact, the focus of the intervention is not aligned with the specific skill area that the student is struggling with. Finally, you may want to reexamine the criteria being used to tier students. It is possible that students who should be receiving Tier 3 support are being placed in Tier 2 and thus not getting the level of support that is needed.
Scenario 3: Demographic Differences
A district or school’s tier breakdown and movement may seem healthy at first glance, but taking a deeper dive into the demographic make up of tier groups may provide insight into issues with equity and disproportionality. Many schools find that the proportion of students receiving Tier 2 and 3 levels of support are not reflective of the demographic proportions of students who are identified by a screening assessment as needing support. Some schools may notice that their Tier 3 is mostly made up of students of color, while their 1st and 2nd Tiers consist of primarily white students. Other schools may see that students from minority backgrounds are more likely to go up in tier level (e.g. from Tier 2 to Tier 3) compared to their white classmates. These support disparities all require a critical and honest evaluation to determine what could be contributing to them. For example, they could be influenced by implicit bias where teachers may have certain expectations of students’ skills and abilities depending on the student’s race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status. It’s also possible that the interventions and supports being used are not culturally responsive to the population being under-supported.
One way to protect against these issues is by keeping a close eye on the demographic characteristics of students within each tier level. School leaders should revisit these statistics at each school-level MTSS meeting. When issues with disproportionality do appear, school MTSS leaders should take a closer look at how tiering decisions are being made. Even when schools use nationally-normed universal screeners to create tier groups, additional data or information is often used to verify those tiers. Educators need to make sure those additional sources of information are not contributing to biases in tiering. It is also critical to examine the support being provided for students at each tier level and whether or not this differs by their demographic backgrounds. Critically evaluating these components of an MTSS framework ensures that all students are supported regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or background.
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.