The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services  recently issued guidance designed to clarify that goals set out in a student’s individualized education program (IEP) must be aligned with grade-level content standards.  The Dear Colleague Letter cites research showing that children with disabilities who struggle in reading and math can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services and supports are provided. (Guidance on FAPE.) On the other side of the coin, low expectations can lead to instruction below grade level.

Why Align IEPs With Grade-Level Standards?

According to the Letter, these requirements originate from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and implementing regulations which require each State to apply the same academic content and achievement standards to all children, including those with disabilities.  The academic content standards are grade-level standards under ESEA regulations.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its regulations also contemplate grade-level curriculum by requiring specially designed instruction and defining special education as “adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.”  34 C.F.R. § 300.39(b)(3).

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Considering the legislative history of the ESEA and IDEA and implementing regulations, the bottom line is this:

Therefore, in order to make FAPE available to each eligible child with a disability, the special education and related services, supplementary aids and services, and other supports in the child’s IEP must be designed to enable the child to advance appropriately toward attaining his or her annual IEP goals and to be involved in, and make progress in, the general education curriculum based on the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled. Dear Colleague Letter, p. 4

How To Implement These Requirements.

According to the Dear Colleague Letter, many States have adopted and implemented procedures for developing standards-based IEPs that include IEP goals that reflect the State’s academic content standards.  In aligning an IEP to content standards, it’s critical that an IEP is designed to meet the individual student’s unique needs.  IEP Teams must consider how a disability impacts the student’s ability to meet annual goals that are aligned with grade-level standards.  Consideration can be given to (1) the special education instruction given to the child, (2) the child’s previous rate of growth, and (3) whether the child is on track to achieve grade-level proficiency within the year.

What About Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities?

The Department understands that some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are measured by alternate academic achievement standards.  The Department considers this a “very small number,” however.  With respect to those students, alternate academic achievement standards must also be aligned with grade-level content standards, although they may be restricted in scope or complexity or take the form of introductory or pre-requisite skills.  In addition, it is expected that IEP goals, even for this small population of students, “reflect high expectations and are based on the State’s content standards for the grade in which a child is enrolled.”

“Ambitious But Achievable” Goals For Students Significantly Below Grade Level.

For students whose present levels of academic performance are significantly below grade-level, the Department recommends IEP Teams to estimate growth toward State standards for the year covered by the IEP.  Goals should be “ambitious but achievable.”  In other words, the goals may not result in grade level achievement, but should be designed to “close the gap.”

Example of Implementation

As an example, the Letter provides a hypothetical of a sixth-grade student with a specific learning disability, who reads at a fourth-grade level but has grade-level listening skills.  The child understands grade-level content when it’s read aloud.  For this student, a proposed program could include specialized instruction to improve reading fluency and modifications for all grade-level reading assignments.  The assignments would be based on sixth-grade content, in science and history for example, but would be shortened to assist with reading fatigue.  Audio texts could be provided, as well as electronic versions of long reading assignments.  While this is just one example for illustrative purposes, the key is using specialized instruction and support services to enable the child to make progress on State grade-level standards.

Your Task

IEP Teams are expected to craft IEP goals aligned with grade-level State academic content standards.  The IEP must contain specially designed instruction necessary to address the child’s unique needs, ensure access to the general education curriculum, provide support services and program modifications, as well as supports for school personnel so the student can meet academic standards and advance appropriately toward annual goals.  This may be a tall order for some students, especially those with cognitive disabilities or who are far below grade level.  It is going to require IEP Teams to be creative and give thorough and thoughtful consideration to the implementation of “ambitious but achievable” goals for these students.

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