At the March 4 District 65 School Board meeting, Donna Cross provided an update on how the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) process is being used in the District’s schools, including how a new cloud-based tool, Branching Minds, is helping teachers use the MTSS process. Ms. Cross is the MTSS Coordinator at the District.

Ms. Cross said that MTSS is a part of Response to Intervention (RTI), but “MTSS goes a little bit further, and it is more proactive than reactive.”

RTI is one of the most effective strategies to improve student learning, said Ms. Cross. Under RTI, if a student fails, schools put interventions in place and teachers see how students respond to the interventions. In contrast, “MTSS is proactive and doesn’t let kids fail. We have a universal screener that makes predictive outcomes about where students will possibly be and we immediately start intervening before students fail.

“We use data to inform our instruction, and where we put supports, and which supports are needed.”

During the 2017-2018 school year, the District formed an MTSS Advisory Council to select a new tool to use in helping teachers administer the MTSS process. Several key criteria were that the new tool be user-friendly, that it be capable of maintaining historical data for students, and that it provide a space where teachers, specialists, principals, social workers, and other staff could collaborate and share input on students.

The advisory council vetted eight vendors, and narrowed the field several times with more extensive vetting each time. The council chose Branching Minds, which uses the “most advanced learning science and education research to help schools transform MTSS for both academics and behavior,” said Ms. Cross. 

Branching Minds contains a universal screener that identifies students who need help early on. A digital file is maintained for each student. On day one, Ms. Cross said, each student’s test data is loaded onto the tool. For a seventh grader, she said, the test data would include all MAP results, all PARCC results, all DRA results – going back to the primary grades – “so you can see every piece of information about a child on one page.”

Based on the test data, a universal screener provides a quick snap shot three times a year about where a student is in relation to grade-level benchmarks and meeting common core standards. It identifies students into three tiers:

• Students performing above the 25th percentile are in Tier I. These students should be successful with Tier I instruction and Tier I supports.

• Students performing between the 10th and 25th percentiles are in Tier II, and they may need smaller group instruction or additional social and emotional supports.

• Students below the 10th percentile are in Tier III, and they may require more intensive interventions, usually one-on-one.

After the initial screening, teachers in collaboration with other staff dig deeper to find out exactly where each student in Tier II and Tier III may need additional supports, and this may require additional diagnostic assessments or observations, said Ms. Cross.

Branching Minds provides “insight surveys” that are differentiated by a student’s grade, the student’s grade-level performance, their IEP status, and their English-language learner status to help in this process. The survey may ask questions regarding the student’s cognition, executive functioning, higher order thinking and other areas, said Ms. Cross.

Branching Minds then uses all the information to recommend possible interventions or supports for a particular student. From a library of 400 possible research-based math interventions or resources, the tool might narrow down the resources to six that have the highest likelihood of success, based on the student’s profile, said Ms. Cross. Branching Minds also provides a summary of what the intervention is, how to use it, and the research that backs it up.

Teachers can then use Branching Minds to develop an intervention plan for the student, which would include a goal, the interventions, and a method to track on a regular basis, how the student is responding to the interventions to see if the interventions are working.

 “We don’t want to provide an intervention that is not strategically targeted to meet the needs of a student,” said Ms. Cross.

Up through February of this school year, the District prepared 350 more plans in math and 335 more plans in reading than it did for the same period in the prior year. Ms. Cross said the new tool has been well received by teachers.

While Branching Minds maintains a library of research-based interventions, teachers say there is “a need for a structured menu of interventions that strategically aligns with common core standards and the current programs already used in the District,” said Ms. Cross in a memo to the Board. “Teachers need additional support to identify exactly what effective interventions would be for specific goals.”

Ms. Cross added that goals for next year are to expand the “District recommended” library of interventions and to provide additional professional learning on the MTSS process.

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said, “There’s so many reasons why this is exciting work.” He said the tool is taking all the assessment data the District has about a student and making the data “really usable. … We’ve gotten a very strong tool and a very strong implementation.”

Board President Suni Kartha said she hoped the tool would help build the District’s capacity to determine what interventions are working to pull students out of the bottom 25th percentile. “It seems like there’s a lot of promise with this tool,” she said.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...