IEP: Honest & Informative or Smoke & Mirrors?
By Emerson Dickman, JD
The IEP document in many states takes a long time to produce, is lengthy, and prepared more to satisfy a mechanical compliance to government mandate than to respond to the needs of a student with a disability. The goal of many IEPs is to provide a defense against mistake and misjudgment by describing the scope of responsibility in terms that are as broad and nonspecific as possible. I am not going to dwell on what an IEP is supposed to do, you can look that up. It is what an IEP doesn’t do that is the critical cause for frustration and conflict.
Professional assessments that form the basis of the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLFP) report, for the most part, the empirical data obtained and avoid an interpretation of same that would identify cause, provide prognosis, or describe prescriptive recommendations. It is like taking a sick child to the doctor and being told “You are right, he is sick.” With no reason given, suggestion for treatment, or reason to hope for the future.
Inclusion is an issue that is driven more by the needs and resources of the school than by the interest’s of the child. An inclusive experience should be of benefit to the child such as offering an opportunity to develop or maintain a sense of belonging and connectedness to a community of peers. If such benefit is not reasonably expected to be achieved, the child would be better off receiving intervention in areas of development where the potential for achievement is meaningful.
Goals and objectives are not aligned to evaluative criteria (progress and rate of progress cannot be measured). a. Baselines(where the child currently functions) are not identified. Broad norm-referenced testing that provides grade level, age level, standard score, and percentiles rarely (if ever) provide baseline information as to objectives identified by the educational professionals, such as “Read silently for the purpose of increasing speed, accuracy, and reading fluency” or “Write sentences of varying length and complexity, using specific nouns, verbs, and descriptive words.” A test I use to determine if an objective is appropriately quantifiable is: Does the objective give a clue as to the age or grade of the child; is the child in the 1st grade or the 12th grade? b. Benchmarks(where the child is expected to perform by the end of the year) are not identified. In essence, the standard approach is to claim that whatever he is doing now, he will do better by the end of the year. Where the child currently functions or how much growth he is expected to make is not identified and cannot be calculated. c. Determination of the success or failure of a program is to be assessed only at the end of the school year, precluding adjustments in programming during the school year if the child’s rate of progress is inadequate to meet benchmark identified. Criterion-referenced probes should be used to monitor rate of growth. If the charted data should indicate a rate of growth insufficient to achieve the chosen benchmark, the approach or intensity of intervention should be changed. (Criterion-referenced probes can be administered with minimum time and effort every two weeks. See AIMSweb, Curriculum-Based Measurement, STEEP, TOWRE, RFBA, and many more which all take less than 2 minutes to administer.) d. Very often mastery levels are confused with the manner in which passing is determined on a test, e.g., 75% is passing. Many goals and objectives in an IEP cannot be achieved at less than 100% mastery, e.g., crossing the street, choosing the right bus, refusing advances from strangers, recognizing when lost, recognizing signs that warn of danger, and even some simple tasks like turning on a vacuum cleaner and identifying when clothing is dirty. Another example of mastery being tied to the task is that reading goals should be at 95% mastery because below 90% is frustration level and between 90 and 95% is instructional level. Unless a selection can be read with at least 95% accuracy, the reader will struggle and tire quickly. e. Reading goals should be characterized simply by indicating a benchmark based on wcpm (words correct per minute) when reading a paragraph at the grade level we wish to achieve by the end of the year. Progress should be monitored on a regular basis using probes that use different grade level paragraphs depending on the level of performance that is expected at the time of administration. Likewise, if the child is to learn keyboarding skills a measurable goal should be characterized in wcpm that he is expected to be able to type. A particular percent applied to a mastery level would not be applicable in such a case. The question is whether the goal has been achieved and where the new baseline is located, not whether the goal is 80% achieved and thus “mastered.”
Programmatic objectives such as the child “will define who a stranger is” and will identify likes and dislikes of others” require some indication of who, how, and when such learning is to take place. All to often state DOE and legal advice is for the district to say as little as possible, e.g., “A teacher will be assigned that is properly certified.” Parents are told that they are not entitled to further information and that the district is not responsible to provide more than a “certified” teacher.
All too often accommodations and modifications such as “modify written assignments” and don’t “grade or assess for specific grammar or content mastery” support the conclusion that the student is getting a watered-down curriculum with lower expectations than those applied to general education age and grade peers. Smaller class size, in-class support, and special education, in general, are supposed to provide the intensive environment necessary for the student to achieve at grade level standards. Lowering standards risks a widening of the achievement gap, Matthew Effect, and is an abrogation of the special educator’s prime responsibility.
School districts, in general, are wrongly advised not to a.) identify a specific program or approach, b.) indicate whether the program chosen by the district requires instructor training, or c.) disclose whether the instructor is sufficiently trained to deliver the program chosen by the district with fidelity to design (as intended). My interpretation of the law is that parents are entitled to this information and it should be contained in the IEP, when appropriate. Such IEPs therefore, do not contain a meaningful indication of cause, professional opinion as to diagnosis and prognosis, baselines, benchmarks, or support for prescriptive recommendations. As a document upon which a parent is intended to rely to judge the appropriateness of the program and placement offered by the District, the average IEP is totally inadequate. The message to parents from the district is, “We are the professionals, trust us.” Most parents would not feel that they have satisfied their duty and responsibility as a parent to sign such a contract.
Please note that I do not directly blame individual districts and the educational professionals working at the district level. The finger of blame points to state departments of education and legal representation that has become increasingly defensive and adversarial over the years. Federal initiatives and mandates are assessed by many state DOEs, first and foremost, from the perspective: “How can it hurt us?” “How can it help us?” and “How can we avoid negative consequences?” In essence, the first question posed in response to a Federal initiative is generally, “How can we avoid the whip or enjoy the benefit without actually doing the work”?
Somehow a focus on the child has been overlooked in this accountability obsessed culture. There is only one outcome that matters and that is the welfare of a child. Due process is not a forum to award winners and punish losers, but to do the right thing for a child. A school district that puts the needs of the child first and communicates openly and honestly with parents and seeks to adopt informed and promising practices will never have to worry about “the whip” or fail to enjoy the benefits of its dedication.
IEPs should communicate, not isolate, aggravate, and instigate. Unfortunately, we live in an age when it is derigueur for state DOEs and legal advisors to offer advice to school districts in the self-serving manner of a Uriah Heap. The disconnect is that education is a helping profession. A big part of the compensation of educators, be they teacher’s aides or administrators, is the opportunity to be of service. Therefore, the very persons and agencies that have stepped forward to protect and defend are (Uriah Heapishly) sucking educators dry of the mission and purpose that drove them to the field in the first place. There is a difference in moral efficacy between the man who seeks to do the right thing and the man who seeks simply to avoid doing the wrong thing. The former embraces progress, the latter fears progress.
NOTE: All objectives quoted in this paper are actual objectives contained in a single 2009 IEP.