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:
- In the curriculum and other educational needs sections of the IEP to describe overall abilities in both academic and functional performance.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
* 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.