Category Archives: IEP Goals

Is the School Following Your Child’s IEP?

The Individual Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. It is a legal contract between the school district and parents that defines what specialized instruction, accommodations, and modifications are necessary for a child to receive the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. Since each child in special education has unique needs, by definition the IEP must be individualized based on what objective testing reveals about a child’s disabilities and capabilities.

A new study, published in February of this year (2018) in the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis has uncovered disturbing trends in the way that schools create and implement IEPs that appear to violate special education law. This study, titled (with typical academic brevity), “The Dynamic Interaction Between Institutional Pressures and Activity: An Examination of the Implementation of IEPs in Secondary Inclusive Settings,” states that its purpose is to “illuminate a dynamic interaction between institutional pressures and the activity of providing students with a special education.”

The study identified different approaches that two schools took in creating and implementing IEPs that circumvent the intention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While this study was undertaken with the goal of influencing the anticipated congressional revision and reauthorization of IDEA and not as an indictment of special education in general, you may want to consider its implications for how your school implements your child’s IEP.

Two Ways to Ignore the Law

In one school, the study discovered that the IEPs for 10th and 11th grade students were written around the school’s existing curriculum for general education. The school would then follow the students’ IEPs, but without acknowledging that the services were simply based on getting the students to pass their general education courses and standardized tests. As a result, the students in special education did not receive the educational services and supports that their disability required. The study cites “institutional pressures” (no doubt including the school budget) as the reason, something the study’s authors point out is not the purpose of an IEP, much less special education.

The second school in the study wrote IEPs for each student that were individualized, but then mostly ignored them. Instead, the school relied on additional staff in the general education classroom as a way to provide more support for the special education students. In addition, these students attended a daily special education “study hall,” where they received more support. While the students in the second school had greater access to the special education curriculum than the first school, it was without the benefit of a program “designed to meet their unique needs,” the purpose of special education. [20 USC § 1400 (d)(1)(A)]

What Can We Learn From This?

It is important to remember that this study had a small sample size and is just the first of several planned studies with the goal of encouraging debate among educators and legislators on how to update special education law. Among future studies, the authors hope to focus on how to improve the creation and implementation of IEPs for special education students included in the general education classroom.

Still, we can extrapolate from this study that even after more than forty years of special education law and practice, there is a lot of uncertainty, and perhaps reluctance, on the part of schools to provide an appropriate education for students with disabilities. This is something that parents must understand and be prepared to deal with.

What You Can Do

Making sure schools are following the law is a responsibility that should not have to be left to parents. Still, the reality is that in addition to parenting a child with disabilities, you also have the job of being a watchdog over the school’s implementation of your child’s education.

Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

  1. Make sure that all services, accommodations, and modifications are clearly defined in the IEP. See our blog article: The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal for some tips.
  2. Create a special education “paper trail” by organizing all the paperwork and other communications with the school that relate to your child’s education. Include samples of your child’s work to illustrate any problems or successes. If you suspect problems, you can use your paper trail to provide evidence of your concerns.
  3. Start a parent journal that, among other things, records your impressions of how your child’s IEP is being implemented.
  4. Arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher to make sure the teacher has a copy of the IEP. Go over any sections that the teacher is responsible for implementing and make sure that you both understand them. Discuss possible ways that you can communicate with each other regarding issues or concerns that may come up. Note that teacher meetings are easier to arrange in elementary school than middle or high school.
  5. Request a Team meeting to discuss your concerns about how the IEP is being implemented. Commentary to the federal regulations makes it clear that “The parent can request an additional IEP Team meeting at any time.” Be prepared to persuade Team members of your point of view, as IDEA gives schools the ultimate authority over the content and implementation of the IEP.
  6. Contact your state’s Parent Training and Information center (PTI), which is a federally mandated organization to provide parents support and information on how to make the most of their child’s education. The staff at the center should be able to advise you on your rights under IDEA and suggest a course of action.
  7. Hire an attorney or advocate who can help you sort through the issues and provide guidance. If necessary, an attorney experienced in special education law can help you seek a due process hearing (similar to a trial) to enforce compliance with the law. Make sure this person is fully independent and does not have any conflicts of interest that may prevent this person fully supporting you and your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing a Strong Vision Statement

The vision statement is one of the most important and overlooked parts of the IEP. This statement isn’t a required part of the IEP in the federal law IDEA, but it is required by many states. It’s important because it serves as a guide for developing special education services and goals that will help a student throughout the remaining school years, and ultimately, life after graduation.

What is a Vision Statement?

The vision statement is a collaborative description of what you and the rest of the IEP Team hope your child will be doing in the next one to five years. This description is a guide, not just for the current school year, but also for upcoming years, through graduation and beyond.

When everyone on the Team understands your child’s aspirations, they can write better goals to help achieve them. Many parents don’t understand the significance of this and write brief statements, such as they hope their son or daughter will graduate from high school. Even worse, school personnel might write the vision statement without input from the student or parents. But planning for your child’s future is critical and should start early. Don’t wait until high school to write a vision statement for your child.

How to Write a Vision Statement

Putting serious thought into what you want your child to achieve in the next one to five years is a valuable exercise, because it encourages thinking about the future. Many parents of children with special needs find it hard to think about the future since they are so focused on the present. Looking ahead to the next five years can seem impossible if you’re just trying to get through the week.

Yet, long-range planning is important for parents, because school personnel are primarily focused on short-term goals for the current school year. You are in the best position to consider long-range goals, since you know your child best and are the ones with the long-term commitment. Ask yourself: what are your future plans and goals for your child? What do you see your child accomplishing in the next five years?

If it is appropriate, have an older child discuss with you how he or she sees the future. Consider such things as community experiences, economic independence, acquiring a driver’s license, learning to take public transportation, living independently, further education, or job training. This information will help the Team understand your child’s interests and preferences.

Avoid Vague Vision Statements

Since a vision statement affects many aspects of the IEP, you want your input to be as specific as possible. To help your Team see the whole picture clearly, avoid vague statements such as these we have seen in actual IEPs:

The Team sees [student] having a smooth transition to high school. They would like her to gain the skills necessary to move on to college.

The Team hopes that [student] will successfully complete his goals and make progress both socially and academically.

These statements might sound good, but need specific descriptions of aspirations that are pertinent to your child. This is true even in elementary school, when your child is beginning to develop academic and social skills.

Write a Detailed Vision Statement

A vision statement can be longer than one or two sentences. Once you have a rough draft, be sure to discuss it with other Team members to create the final statement. It is important to have them give their input, because they may have ideas that you might not have considered. Keep in mind that a vision statement is a collaborative effort.

The following example illustrates how details can provide useful guidance for writing goals:

For grade three, we expect [student] to be reading and writing at grade level as measured by testing in the spring. We expect that he will receive the necessary support and specialized instruction to do this. We want him to achieve his potential academically so that he is at grade level every year through elementary school, with objective testing data to back this up.

A vision statement like this focuses your child’s IEP on results as confirmed by testing data, not just teacher observations or wishful thinking. This is an example of how your expectations, combined with an understanding of what the school should do, can improve your child’s chances of getting an appropriate education. You can read more about the importance of objective data for making educational decisions in our article: Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP.

How You Can Create Effective Vision Statements

  1. Begin thinking about your child’s future at an early age. You may only be considering the future one year at a time at this point, but even that is important. Realize that the vision statement will need to be updated each year as your child changes and reaches goals.
  2. The vision statement should inform schools of your expectations. Be sure to brainstorm with your Team about appropriate goals for your child and be realistic.
  3. Use independent testing, if possible, to confirm what your child is capable of. Don’t just rely on school testing for information.
  4. If your older child is ready, be sure to have a discussion with him or her about dreams and aspirations. It is important for parents and children to have dreams for the future and talk about what a child is most interested in. Have an older child write his or her own vision statement, if possible.
  5. The vision statement is closely linked to postgraduate transition planning. Be sure to include information about possible college, vocational school, employment, and independent living by the ninth grade IEP.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Avoid “Feel Good” Goals

In examining hundreds of IEP goals, we have noticed that too many just describe hoped-for outcomes and not measurable results. These goals tend to be vague statements of what the IEP Team would like the student to be rather than define a path toward a specific accomplishment. We call these “feel good” goals because they describe achievements that we all want for our children, but they don’t provide guidance as to how the child is going to get there.

Vague Goals vs. Specific Goals

Vague goals, like “[Student] will increase his homework production,” “demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom,” or “increase her study skill techniques,” don’t indicate how the goal will be measured (if it can be measured at all), who will assist the student in achieving the goal, or how anyone will even know if the goal has been reached.

Even though these goals may sound good, at the end of the year there will be no concrete evidence to indicate if they have been accomplished. There may even be the temptation to think that the goal has been partially or even fully met, when in fact the opposite might be true.

Goals Gone Wrong

The following are actual goals we have found in IEPs. Only the student’s name has been removed, replaced by [student], and in a few cases bad grammar has been corrected. Otherwise, they are verbatim.

[Student] will become more consistent in completing his required academic work.

[Student] will continue to maintain her independence in the high school setting.

[Student] will demonstrate skills in relaxing to reduce body and mental tension. (One of the benchmarks says that the student will “use sensory diet techniques for achieving body and thought relaxation.”)

[Student] will consistently exhibit responsible behavior in the areas of classroom participation and assignment completion.

[Student] will work to improve the thoroughness of his daily preparation.

While it is easy to see unintended humor in many of these goals, it is worth noting that in just about every case these statements describe what parents and students want from their special education experience. Instead of being goals, however, these statements only project the results of successfully achieving a goal. We have seen these kind of feel good statements appear in far too many IEPs masquerading as goals.

Unmeasurable “Progress”

Without providing any direction, it is almost impossible to determine when, or even if, these feel good goals can ever be achieved in a realistic fashion. The result is that they sometimes end up repeating year after year without any end in sight. This can lead to a lack of motivation, both on the part of the student, who doesn’t have any identifiable path to follow, and school personnel, who don’t have any way to measure progress.

One of our son’s goals for written language repeated word for word in every IEP from 3rd through 7th grades. We routinely got reports that he was making “tremendous progress,” “excellent progress,” or “outstanding progress” toward achieving this goal (these phrases seemed to appear in rotation), yet we never questioned the goal. In hindsight, we now see that this goal was too vague and unmeasurable to be achieved. In short, it was nothing but a feel good goal.

What Makes a Goal Measurable?

The opposite of a feel good goal is one that has the following characteristics:*

  1. It contains a method for measuring whether the goal has been achieved.
  2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.
  3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.
  4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

Many of the IEP goals we have seen provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student.

What You Can Do

Remember that the IEP is created by a Team that includes you, the parent. Your voice is an important part in any discussion about your child’s goals. Use your voice by assisting the Team in developing goals that are measurable, time-limited, and specific about who is responsible for seeing that the goals are met.

  • Make sure that the current performance level for each goal accurately describes what your child is capable of doing. It should include the most recent testing data (including independent evaluation results) in that skill area, especially the grade level equivalent for your child’s current performance.
  • Have each goal specify valid ways of measuring your child’s progress. Include details for teachers and other service providers to notice and record in their observations.
  • Make sure that all goals are appropriately coordinated with the service delivery grid. The grid should allow ample time for every service. Also notice what type of professional will provide the service. If no one or just “sped staff” is listed, ask for more detail about that person’s role and qualifications. Pay attention to the location, start, and end dates of the service.
  • Have the information in the service delivery grid written into the description of the goal. The grid often appears pages after the goal in the IEP where it can be overlooked by both you and the service providers. The duplication serves to remind everyone that the most important part of a goal is achieving it.

Your participation in the IEP process is critical to ensure that all your child’s goals are realistic, measurable, and come with adequate services to achieve them. This is your child’s right in getting the appropriate education that the law guarantees.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* These four characteristics are adapted from Barbara Batemen’s and Cynthia Herr’s excellent book: Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.

Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP

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An IEP is your child’s roadmap to an appropriate education. No map can help you, however, if you don’t know your starting point. That is why the IEP must contain objectively measured assessments of your child’s abilities before it can be an effective educational roadmap.

There are two places where clear descriptions of your child’s current level of performance should appear in an IEP:

  1. In the curriculum and other educational needs sections of the IEP to describe overall abilities in both academic and functional performance.
  2. Before each IEP goal to indicate current ability in the skill being addressed by that goal.

This information is critical to developing an IEP that accurately assesses strengths and weaknesses and develops goals that are specific to your child’s individual needs.

Overall Academic and Functional Performance

The 2004 re-authorization of the special education laws, IDEA-04, requires that an IEP contain a description of a student’s “present levels of academic achievement and functional performance,” generally known by the acronym PLEP,* although some professionals use the acronym PLOP, or the tongue twisting PLAAFP.

The PLEP describes how the student’s disability impacts his or her overall progress in academic as well as in social-emotional and behavioral areas. Having this information helps your Team identify the appropriate types of instruction and accommodations needed for your child to make effective progress in school.

In describing the general academic curriculum, the PLEP should indicate which specific subject areas, such as English Language Arts, Science and Technology, Mathematics, or Social Studies, are affected by your child’s disability. For each area there should be a description of your child’s current performance in the classroom, such as a listing of recent grades or a summary of your child’s classroom behavior, e.g., “He does not complete homework consistently and assignments are handed in late, or not at all.” The purpose is to indicate how your child’s disability affects progress in the subject area.

For non-academic performance, the PLEP serves the same purpose in describing how your child’s disability affects areas such as social-emotional, adapted physical education, behavior, or extra-curricular activities. The PLEP should include details on specialized instruction, methodology, modifications, and accommodations the student needs to receive in each area.

Importance of Objective Data

It is important that the PLEP reflect the available testing data and diagnosis, and describe how your child’s performance can be objectively analyzed. We have seen many IEPs use only subjective methods, like teacher observations, for determining current student performance, even when testing data was readily available. While classroom observation can be helpful, the PLEP should not rely on it exclusively.

Assessments for IEP Goals

Whereas the PLEP describes how a disability affects a student’s overall academic and non-academic performance, each IEP goal should be preceded by a description of the student’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. Simply put, if you want to create a realistic and attainable goal for a skill, you first have to know your starting point.

Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the questions about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math will need more intensive math instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance of your child is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) are considered good indicators. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation can indicate social-emotional or behavioral performance, and a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can also be helpful.

Quality of the Assessment Affects Quality of the Goal

There is a definite relationship between the quality of the assessment and the quality of the goal. We have noticed that the less objective the assessment, the more vague and ineffective the goal. In IEPs where the current level of performance for a skill is simply an anecdotal description of behavior without any objective data to back it up, the resulting goal is often so vague that there is little, if any, chance of the student achieving it. In our book we give actual examples of many vague and hard-to-measure goals. In almost every case these goals were preceded by performance assessments that were equally vague.

What You Can Do

  1. Make one of the first agenda items at your annual IEP meeting to identify and describe your child’s current abilities in both academic and social-emotional areas. Focus on how well he or she is accessing the general curriculum. Don’t rely only on grades, however, as in most schools grade inflation makes them an inaccurate yard stick.
  2. Make sure that the IEP contains an accurate description of your child’s disability(ies) and, if you are comfortable including it, the most current diagnosis. If necessary, update this information each year during the annual IEP review.
  3. Before writing a goal, make sure that you and the rest of the Team have a good understanding of your child’s current level of performance in the skill being addressed by that goal. The best descriptions of performance come from objective data found in the most recent evaluations. While anecdotal descriptions can be useful to supplement testing data, do not rely on them exclusively.

When working with your school’s IEP Team members keep the focus on identifying your child’s current ability to access the school curriculum. Only then can the IEP effectively address goals and include the necessary services, accommodations, and modifications needed to obtain the appropriate education that is your child’s right.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Parts of this article are adapted from Chapter 6 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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* The acronym comes from the language in IDEA-97, which specified that the IEP include a statement of the student’s “present levels of educational performance.” While the language in IDEA-04 changed to include both academic and functional performance, most people still use the old acronym.

Writing by Hand Improves Cognitive Development

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Are you old enough to remember when “penmanship” used to be taught in public schools? We are. We can recall specific classes that focused on teaching the skills of handwriting: both manuscript (printed) letters and cursive. Entire classes were devoted to this skill, with gold stickers on certificates presented to those who produced legible and careful handwriting.

By the 1990s, when our son started school, the word “penmanship” had disappeared from the school curriculum. We kept bringing it up, because legible handwriting did not come easily for him. Some children with good fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination get the hang of it naturally, but for many children with special needs, that is not the case. Without proper intervention, these children will not have good handwriting skills when they become adults.

Why is Handwriting Important?

Recent studies by neuroscientists have established a positive link between learning to write by hand and learning to read in young children. The studies show that similar mental development doesn’t happen when a child learns by typing or tracing letters. This link between handwriting and cognition continues even into adulthood. For example, in the classroom taking notes by hand shows a much greater memory retention of the material than typing notes on a laptop.

Interestingly, the quality of the handwriting, or the difference between writing in manuscript letters or cursive, doesn’t make as much of a difference as the act of actually putting “pen to paper.” According to one expert, “there is something special about handwriting that is distinct from other motor movements.”

The School’s Response

In elementary school, we would ask the school staff to help our son with his handwriting and they would give us a blank look. We would point out that when he was older, he would need to take notes for classes, fill out job applications or medical forms, and write many other documents. He would need to be familiar with cursive handwriting so he could read other people’s writing. At the very least, he would need to be able to write legible manuscript letters if he couldn’t master cursive.

Their response? “Don’t worry, we’ll teach him keyboarding.” They did not see handwriting as an important skill. The only sustained handwriting instruction he got in those critical early years was occupational therapy for fine motor skills provided through his IEP. This helped, but there was no follow through in the general education classroom.

Of course, keyboarding is an important skill in today’s computer literate society, but we strongly feel that every child with the appropriate ability should be exposed to handwriting instruction. Even in an age when everyone “thumbs” text messages on their smart phones, handwriting is still a basic life skill with important benefits for brain development.

A Real Life Example

We experienced an example of the importance of handwriting two years ago, when our son was preparing to take the Graduate Record Exam. He faced a potential obstacle when he read the following on the GRE website:

You will be required to write in cursive (not print) and sign a confidentiality statement at the test center. If you do not complete and sign the statement, you cannot test and your test fees will not be refunded.

Since our son had never learned cursive, reading about this requirement produced a lot of anxiety for him. Fortunately, at the test site he was told that it was acceptable to print the confidentiality statement in manuscript letters, so he was able to take the exam. In fact, the cursive requirement has recently been dropped from the statement. But this is just one example of the importance that society still places on handwriting skills that your child may face in the future as an adult.

The website of the Campaign for Cursive contains other real world examples similar to this and points to peer-reviewed research indicating that the benefits of penmanship include improved neural connections in the brain and better fine motor skills. According to this website, schools today have given up teaching handwriting, offering it only in optional “art” classes.

What Can You Do?

It will take the pressure of parents at both at the local and state levels to demand that schools teach penmanship again. The Campaign for Cursive website has information on contacting your legislators to let them know that you want to see penmanship taught in schools.

Of course, persuading your School Committee and your legislators to change will take time. Meanwhile you can:

  • Read to your preschool child as much as possible. Bedtime is an excellent time for this activity. Demonstrating an appreciation for the written word will motivate your child to learn about writing as well as reading.
  • Find out how your school teaches handwriting, and if available, sign your child up to take optional “art” classes in penmanship. This instruction should begin as early as possible, especially in combination with reading instruction.
  • If your child is in special education, ask for an occupational therapy evaluation to see if you can get services to improve the fine motor skills needed for legible handwriting.

Even in preschool, you should be helping your child master basic skills such as handwriting for success in life as an adult.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Three-Year Reevaluation Strategies

fall-14 textTeam meetings are a major part of the special education experience, none more important than the three-year reevaluation. The evaluation reports and subsequent Team meeting to discuss them set the course of your child’s next three years in special education. During the meeting, the Team can modify your child’s services to make them more appropriate, or the Team may conclude that your child is no longer eligible for special education. With so much at stake, you need to be prepared for a meeting of this importance.

What Is the Purpose of the Three-Year Reevaluation?

The purpose of the three-year reevaluation is to determine if your child has made progress achieving his or her goals and what changes, if any, are needed to continue that progress. First, both you and the school personnel decide ahead of time which evaluations your child should have. They should be in all areas of suspected disability, such as academic, social-emotional, occupational therapy, or physical therapy. These evaluations should carefully assess what progress your child has actually made over the previous three years. The Team then meets to discuss whether your child continues to have a disability and what services, accommodations, or modifications are needed based on objective data provided by the evaluations.

What We Experienced in Reevaluation Meetings

We experienced several three-year reevaluations during our 15 years in special education and some of our experiences are worth mentioning. During each reevaluation meeting there were many separate reports that needed discussion. Fortunately, we had requested the written reports in advance so we could review them before the meeting. In addition, we usually brought outside professionals to the meetings to give reports of their evaluations. The meetings also included a discussion of IEP goals for the coming year.

We would attend these meetings without an advocate, confident we could manage the meeting and all the information presented in it. We were wrong about that. As each meeting progressed, we would begin to feel overwhelmed. It was difficult to listen, take accurate notes, and fully understand what was being said. Some reports were very detailed and confusing. Each report had recommendations that were briefly discussed but not fully explained. All of this would happen in approximately one hour, after which the teachers and specialists would have to attend to other duties. We would leave these meetings exhausted and wondering what, if anything, had been accomplished.

What You Can Do

Looking back on our experience now, we have the following suggestions to help keep your meetings more manageable:

1. Request, in writing, copies of all evaluation reports in advance of the Team meeting that will discuss them. Federal law requires schools to do this, though each state differs as to how many days in advance the school must let you review them.

2. Make sure that each report contains recommendations for services, accommodations, or modifications to be written into the IEP. The recommendations should be in plain English, not technical jargon, and based on objective data, not anecdotes. If not, ask the evaluator to clarify what he or she is recommending. If the recommendation is too brief, such as “more time on tests” or “provide counseling,” ask for more details. If counseling is recommended, for example, how many times a week? With whom? What kind of professional? Do not accept any report that says “Recommendations will be discussed at the Team meeting.” If necessary, postpone the meeting until clear and specific recommendations are added to any report that lacks them.

3. If many evaluators are scheduled to discuss their reports and time is limited, request a brief summary of each report, saving detailed discussion for the written recommendations. That way the evaluators will be on the record for saying what they think the school needs to do to help your child.

4. Never attend any Team meeting alone. Bring a spouse, partner, or friend. Ideally, bring a special education advocate who understands the dynamics in the room and who can help keep the meeting on track.

5. Bring someone to the meeting just to take notes. A person who is not as emotionally involved in your situation as you are can provide important factual information to you later. Don’t rely only on your memory.

6. Prepare a list of your concerns several days ahead of time and give them to your special education liaison. Work with your liaison to create an agenda with both school and parent items to discuss. Bring copies of the agenda to hand out to each person in the room. Follow the agenda during the meeting to help keep the discussion on track.

7. Have a Team discussion to determine if your child is achieving his or her IEP goals based on the results of the evaluations. The discussion should focus on specific goals based on the objective data in the reports.

Realize that the three-year reevaluation meeting is an important milestone for both you and your child. A productive meeting will give the Team the best possible chance to determine if your child has actually made progress over the previous three years and how to plan for the future. The data from the evaluations and the specific recommendations based on this data will be critical for your child’s success during the next three years.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Planning for Transition Before Graduation

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Graduation is usually a time of celebration, when young people complete their high school studies and move on to work or college. For parents of students on IEPs, graduation has an additional significance because it ends their child’s right to special education. Once a student accepts a high school diploma, special education services end. This makes planning for the transition to adult life especially important. Transition planning needs to happen first, followed by transition services, and only then by graduation. The goal is not to graduate on a schedule, but for the student to acquire the skills necessary to function independently in adult life and to become a productive member of society.

Why Transition Planning is Important

All too often parents do not adequately plan for their child’s transition to a post-high school life. If schools do not bring up this topic at Team meetings or do not make parents aware of its importance, parents may be unaware of how critical it is. Without appropriate planning, students with disabilities can graduate from high school without being prepared for post-secondary education or employment. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the employment rate for young adults with disabilities is less than half the rate of their peers without disabilities.

The federal law IDEA requires transition planning for students on IEPs beginning with the IEP in effect when a student turns 16. A better time to begin planning is with the IEP that will be in effect when a student turns 14. In fact many state special education laws require transition planning and services to begin at this earlier date. A transition plan should outline a course of study and specify what services are needed to support a successful transition. This includes identifying any state agencies outside the school district that might be responsible for helping with the transition process.

Planning Should Address More Than Academic Needs

Appropriate transition planning includes addressing more than just academic needs. Such aspects as helping students obtain community experiences, employment training, and daily living skills are equally important. Schools should perform transition assessments to help a student’s special education Team determine the courses, vocational training, life skills instruction, or related services that the student will need during the rest of his or her publicly funded education.

When creating a transition plan, the Team should consider the student’s vision statement of what he or she would like to be doing in the future. This means looking at the many facets of a young person’s life, such as their interests, goals, and hopes for the next five years.

Parents can help their child think ahead beyond high school graduation. For example, does the student want to attend college, vocational school, work at a job, or live independently? Will the student need various services to become independent, such as travel training, remediation in reading, writing, and math skills, counseling, or occupational therapy? Teams also need to consider health care, transportation, and community experiences. Transition planning can be complex depending on a young person’s needs. It is not as simple as achieving passing grades and passing state mandated exams, as recent hearing decisions in Massachusetts have demonstrated.

Transition Planning and Graduation are Closely Linked

Since accepting a high school diploma means an end to special education services, there is a significant financial benefit for schools to graduate students on IEPs and end their obligation to provide special education services. Otherwise, the federal law IDEA allows for special education services to continue until a student’s 22nd birthday. This provides an incentive for schools to devise different and creative ways to move a struggling student along the path to graduation and for parents to carefully monitor whether their child has made sufficient progress in meeting his or her transition goals.

Since most states allow school districts to set their own graduation requirements, we have observed that some districts play a graduation game by adopting low graduation standards to move students out of the system. Districts can legally reduce the number of required credits to graduate, lower performance criteria, or substitute a different course for a student who might have difficulty passing a required one. Our school district actually tried to force our son to graduate before he had earned enough credits to apply to college. Since attending college was his primary transition goal, we filed for a hearing to prevent them from issuing a premature diploma. The lesson is that low graduation standards can be used as a tool to remove a student from a district’s special education obligations by forcing a student to graduate before he or she is ready.

We recommend that once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. You may find them in your school’s handbook for students or online on your school’s website. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life whether it is college, volunteer work, vocational training, or adult education. If further education is a goal, make sure that he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate school.

Alternative Diplomas and Graduation Certificates

In addition to a regular high school diploma, schools can offer students different kinds of exit documents that require a less rigorous curriculum. These include alternative diplomas, which go by names such as an IEP diploma or vocational diploma. Some schools offer certificates of completion or certificates of attendance. None of these documents end special education or transition services. The only document that will do that is a regular high school diploma. These alternative exit documents can be an appropriate solution for some students, but parents should be aware that they can flag the graduate as a special education student and may limit that student’s options for the future.

An alternative diploma or certificate may not be recognized as qualifying for attendance at a community college, vocational school, or enlistment in the armed forces without additional testing or certification. They can also indicate to potential employers that a job applicant has special needs or learning disabilities. Each state has different standards for diplomas and certificates, so check with your department of education to see what your state permits schools to offer.

What Parents Can Do

When a student with disabilities has proper transition planning and services, the opportunities for additional education and work are greatly enhanced. To this end we recommend the following:

  • Begin transition discussions with your child’s Team by the time your child enters his or her freshman year in high school, usually by age 14. Start looking at post high school options, such as vocational training, internships, or further education, and have the Team write a transition plan into your child’s IEP. Be sure to update the plan yearly.
  • Once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life. If further education is a goal, make sure he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate college.
  • If your Team doesn’t feel that your child can meet the course standards for a regular high school diploma, ask the following:
    What accommodations and services are in the IEP that would help your child meet the same requirements as other students receiving a standard diploma?
     Would staying in school until he or she reaches the maximum age of eligibility in your state allow your child to earn a standard diploma?
     Would any form of alternative diploma or certificate be appropriate for your child’s level of performance and would earning it give your child the skills to lead an independent life?
  • Request a vocational assessment if your child would prefer employment rather than further education after high school. The assessment should be performed by a vocational assessment specialist and should provide direction about possible career paths and employment opportunities, as well as provide information about performance in skill areas.
  • Likewise, request an independent living skills assessment, if appropriate, to determine what supports are needed for your child to live on his or her own after high school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 11, “Transition Planning and Graduation” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal

mountains-27 textThe Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. The individual goals created for a student on an IEP are the way that the student makes progress toward the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guaranteed by special education law. An effective goal is both specific to the student and measurable by objective standards.

Our experience is that it is up to parents to help their child’s IEP Team understand and create effective goals for their children. This requires knowing the three essential parts of an IEP goal: the current level of performance, specific and measurable milestones, and services to support attaining the goal. The following sections describe the three questions you and your Team should be asking to create goals that are realistic and effective for your child.

What’s your starting point?

Every goal begins with an assessment of the student’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. This is called the student’s “current level of performance.” The importance of this is to establish the starting point for the goal. Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the question about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math, for example, will need more intensive math instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) is considered a good indicator of current performance. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation is an effective indicator of social-emotional or behavioral performance while a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can be helpful.

We have found that there is a definite relationship between the quality of the assessment and the quality of the goal. The less objective the assessment of the current level of performance the more vague and ineffective the goal. In IEPs where the current level of performance is simply an anecdotal description of behavior, our experience is that the resulting goal is often so vague that there is little, if any, chance of the student achieving it.

Where are you going?

The goal is the IEP’s road map for achievement. You need a specific, time-limited goal that can take your child from his or her current level of performance to a realistic higher level during the time period covered by the goal, which is usually a school year.

In their book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives, Barbara Batemen and Cynthia Herr describe the four characteristics of a measurable goal:

1. It contains a method for measuring whether or not the goal has been achieved.

2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.

3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.

4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

We have seen too many IEP goals that provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student without any teacher or specialist assistance.

How Are You Going to Get There?

A goal won’t work if there aren’t services to help your child achieve it. This makes adequate services essential. The service delivery grid is the part of the IEP that specifies what services are needed to help the student achieve a goal, where and how often the services are given, and who is providing the services. Unless the grid specifies adequate time and a properly qualified person, it is unrealistic to expect a student to make satisfactory progress toward even the most well-written goal.

When examining a service delivery grid pay special attention to the the following:

  • The type of service.
  • The dates that service begins and ends.
  • Where and how often the service is provided.
  • The kind of professional responsible for providing the service. Vague references to “sped staff” are not helpful, and not even permitted in some states.

In addition to making sure that service delivery is clearly spelled out in the grid, we recommend that you have this information written into the description of the goal itself. The reason for this is that the service delivery grid often appears pages after the goal and can be overlooked by both you and your child’s service providers. The duplication also helps remind everyone that the most important part of an IEP goal is achieving it.

Putting It All Together

The three parts of an IEP goal: current level of performance, specific and measurable goal, and service delivery all need to support each other. When you know your starting point, where you are going, and how you are going to get there, then your child’s journey toward an appropriate education can be a rewarding one.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

What has been your experience creating IEP goals with your Team? Do you feel that the goals were effective? Please send us a comment on our Contact Page.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 7, “Writing Effective IEP Goals” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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