One purpose of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is to provide parents and teachers with a tool to monitor the progress of a student with learning disabilities. While progress is not guaranteed in an IEP, it is predicted. By law, an IEP looks forward and must be “reasonably calculated to confer an educational benefit” that is likely to produce progress.
Progress in any context is forward movement, with starting and ending points. In IEP terms, a child is predicted to move from present levels of achievement to annual goals that are, or should be written in a way that a stranger could understand.
To pass the “stranger test,” goals should be written using the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Action-oriented, Realistic or Relevant, and Time-limited. Because State Departments of Education train on this concept, school districts know about this. There is no excuse for an IEP to be anything other than SMART.
The same federal law that gives you the right to inspect and review your child’s records, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also gives you the right to “reasonable explanation.”
You have the right to understand the progress or regression that is occurring between one IEP and the next, even to review instructional materials.
It’s great if your child’s school is already using objective means to calculate progress, perhaps with scores from classroom tests and quizzes or from other objective, curriculum-based measures, which consist of frequent, brief assessments on material or skills that your child has been instructed in.
If the measures are too vague or subjectively reported to determine progress, request an IEP meeting. Make sure that your child’s goals are SMART and that evaluation criteria effectively monitor his progress. The elements of the reliable determination of PROGRESS include measurements that are:
- Predictive: Perform an Internet search for a particular interest (e.g., “progress monitoring to predict reading fluency”) to find specific evaluation measures most likely to predict progress. Adapt what you find to your child’s particular situation.
- Research-driven: The IDEA calls for research-based instructional methodologies and progress monitoring; make this a cornerstone of your discussions at IEP meetings.
- Observable: Most measurement criteria should be quantifiable rather than dependent on selective anecdotal narrative. Remember that the M in SMART stands for measurable.
- Graphed: Represent progress visually. You’ll find this suggested in best-practices for both academic and behavioral programming. The school-based members of your IEP team, whether at a Bachelor’s or Ph.D. level, have been trained in educational statistics and the visual representation of data. Ask for this. If necessary, open up Microsoft Excel on your own to graph results that the school reports so that you can clearly see and show the progress, regression, or flat line that is occurring.
- Reported: Data collection is not sufficient; data must be reported, analyzed, and used to drive program changes.
- Efficient: Time is not an issue; ample research identifies various ways to measure progress objectively and efficiently. Respectfully point out that effective, objective progress monitoring reduces disputes and the meetings required to resolve those disputes.
- Scientific: When reliable research identifies a shortcut, use it. When research shows the need for more samples or data points, go with that. Follow the science.
- Summative: Never mind the needless detail, but resolve to act on what effective progress monitoring leads you to conclude, whether that means no change at all; a new or revised goal; or an increase, decrease, or reallocation of services and supports.
SMART goals monitored effectively will validate the current IEP or establish the need for change—and will help you secure the free and appropriate education to which your child is entitled.
Linda Talbert runs her own practice as a non-attorney parent advocate and researcher for special education law firms.