Many disputes arise based on the content of an IEP. An IEP is a complex document. It contains many parts. And because of that, there are many opportunities for an IEP Team to disagree on particular parts of the IEP.
The development of an IEP includes five stages:
(1) Eligibility Category;
(2) Present Levels of Performance;
(3) IEP Goals;
(4) Supports and Services; and
1. Eligibility Category
The IEP Team first needs to determine the child's eligibility category or categories. It is not uncommon for students to be eligible under more than one category. For instance, autistic children frequently have language differences. So, these students commonly qualify under autism and speech or language impairment.
A child isn't entitled to a particular eligibility category. But don't worry because the eligibility category doesn't dictate IEP services. When a child qualifies for special education under any category, the school district must meet all of his or her educational needs. So, pick your battles. What's important is that your child qualifies special education and that the IEP meets his or her needs.
2. Present levels of performance
The IEP Team needs to determine the child's present levels of performance (PLOPs). Here, the IEP Team will determine the child's strengths and weaknesses in various educational areas. These areas may include, but not limited to, academics, communication, and behavior. Identifying a child's weaknesses helps the IEP Team determine which areas the child needs assistance with, which, in turn, guides the discussion of what accommodations or IEP goals the child needs.
The importance of PLOPs cannot be overstated. If the PLOPs aren't accurate, there's little chance the IEP is going to be helpful to the child. PLOPs are to IEPs what a foundation is to a home. If the foundation of a home is off plane, the home, once constructed, is going to have problems. Likewise, if the PLOPs are inaccurate, odds are good that everything else to follow is going to be inaccurate as well, at least to varying degrees depending on the magnitude of the inaccuracy.
PLOPs that are inaccurately reported can result in an IEP that doesn't provide the child with the services and supports he or she truly needs. Significant errors in reporting can result in underestimating or overestimating a child's abilities. Both errors can be detrimental. If an IEP team underestimates the PLOPs, they are likely to develop goals that aren't sufficiently ambitious to allow the child to make meaningful progress during the year. Conversely, if an IEP team overestimates the PLOPs, the child may lack the prerequisite skills to meaningfully work toward the goals that are ultimately developed. This latter situation happens frequently with students with language differences, particularly in reading. If a child is struggling to decode language, working on fluency (or reading speed), in many cases, is both premature and ineffective.
Ask for the data that supports what the IEP Team is telling you. Meaningful and actionable data can be derived from a variety of sources, such as the student's work samples, charted data, or observation logs.
3. Measurable goals
School districts must develop goals in all areas of need. However, this doesn't mean every need requires a goal. Some needs can be, and often are, addressed in other ways such as accommodations. For example, if a child has a testing anxiety which adversely impacts his or her performance on tests, rather than developing an IEP goal for this, the IEP Team may provide the child with a testing accommodation that allows him or her an extra 15 minutes on tests if the team believes extra time will alleviate some or all of the student's testing anxiety. If, however, a child has a recognized need and there isn't an accommodation to address it or an accommodation alone would be insufficient, the child likely should have an IEP goal in the area.
School districts must also develop measurable IEP goals. Measurable goals enable parents and school staff to monitor the child's progress and to revise the IEP as necessary to meet the child's educational needs.
In order for a goal to be measurable, the IEP Team must report at what level the child is functioning (i.e., present level of performance) in a particular area, craft the annual goal, and detail how the goal will be measured.
For an example, see below:
Johnny knows 6 of 26 letter sounds (a, c, d, e, f, and j) with 100% accuracy. By this time next year, Johnny will know 26 letter sounds with 80% accuracy on 4 out of 5 trials, as measured by charted data produced by his teacher.
The above goal tells you where Johnny is starting from, what he is working towards, how his progress will be measured, and who will be responsible for tracking his progress. In short, a good IEP goal should tell you four things: where, what, how, and who.
4. Services and Supports
After determining the child's needs and developing his or her annual IEP goals, the IEP Team will then decide what services and supports are needed for him to achieve those goals.
5. Educational Placement
Last but not least, after the IEP Team has worked through steps 1-4, they will decide where the IEP will be implemented. This is the educational placement. A special education placement must provide the child with the opportunity to be educated with their nondisabled peers to maximum extent possible. This is commonly referred to as the student's “least restrictive environment.”
In California, which follows the legal precedent set forth by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, there are four factors that are considered when determining whether a particular placement is the “least restrictive environment” for a particular child. These four factors include:
(1) the educational benefits of the placement;
(2) the non-academic benefits of the placement;
(3) the effect the disabled child will have on the teacher and children in the classroom; and
(4) the cost of educating the child in the setting with appropriate services, as compared to the cost of educating the child in an alternative educational setting.
Educational placements can range from a regular classroom to in-home instruction or residential treatment facilities, and many options in-between. Because of the vast options available to IEP Teams, they frequently find themselves in disagreements about what the appropriate educational placement is.