Monday, November 23, 2015

IDEA and High Expectations

This month marks the 40th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – the IDEA – first signed into law November 29, 1975. As most of our readers know, IDEA is the basis for educational services and supports for most students in pre-K through high school with a wide range of disabilities, including specific learning disabilities.

To coincide with this anniversary, the U.S. Department of Education has released a new guidance document for State Education Departments, noting that the IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a student who receives services under the IDEA must be aligned with the academic content standards for the grade in which that student is enrolled. This guidance has been welcomed by parents and advocates who have been concerned that students with disabilities are not being held to high enough standards. As noted by The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), “the power of an IEP written with high expectations and its impact on a student’s ability to achieve” are important to students’ lifetime success.

Although exceptions are made for students with the significant cognitive disabilities, even students who are far behind their peers will be held to these academic content standards. However, where students without significant cognitive disabilities are “performing significantly below the level of the grade in which the child is enrolled,” the IEP should contain goals that are “ambitious but achievable.” The Department of Education notes that schools should provide children with specialized instruction to help close the gap between their level of achievement and state standards.

While we welcome high standards and expectations for all students, we will take a “wait and see” position as to whether schools can properly support students with IEPs who are below grade level in one or more subjects, especially those with specific learning disabilities that impact a particular aspect of learning, such as math. While high standards for all students are a laudable goal, the "devil is in details." Such standards need to be reasonable and relevant, not arbitrary.

For example, schools need to focus not just on content mastery, but also on competencies and skills that students can use to help them succeed in the future. Students need to have access to content and methodologies for demonstrating/assessing mastery that take into account their specific disabilities. These methodologies must not be inherently discriminatory and need to conform to the principals of Universal Design for Learning, including multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression. For instance, for some students, schools should consider a portfolio component of assessment.

We would hope that this new guidance does not result in grade retention for students who do not meet grade level assessments, when their failure to do so may be due to years of inappropriate instruction and inadequate methods of demonstrating mastery.

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