to Make Special Education Work
By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
January 22, 2015
The 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, 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:
- It contains a method for measuring whether or not the goal has been achieved.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 7, “Writing Effective IEP Goals” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.