You may already know what an Individual Education Program (IEP) is. In recent years some states have begun using a type of IEP called a standards-based IEP. Standards based IEPs are based on academic state standards.
State standards describe what students are expected to learn in every subject, in every grade. More states and school districts adopt standards-based IEPs. So it’s helpful to understand the thinking behind this new approach.
A traditional IEP starts by focusing on a student’s learning and social-emotional strengths and challenges. Using evaluation and test results, the IEP team develops a clear picture of the student’s present levels of academic achievement. The IEP team then sets instructional goals for the child to develop the areas of need.
But there’s often no direct connection between these goals and the general education curriculum. As a result, with a traditional IEP, a child could achieve his annual goals and still not reach grade level. This can set up students in special education to fall farther behind over the years. They could fall so far behind that they might not qualify for a regular high school diploma.
In fact, research shows that in 2011, just 68 percent of students with specific learning disabilities graduated with a regular high school diploma. In some states, more students with learning disabilities drop out of high school than graduate.
The standards-based IEP takes a different approach. It determines how a student is currently performing compared to what he’s expected to be doing based on grade-level academic standards. Then it sets IEP goals to help close that gap.
Standards-based IEPs assume that students should be working toward doing grade-level work and will make progress if they get the right support and services. Even severely disabled students, whose cognitive abilities may make it difficult for them to ever fully operate at grade level, will be exposed to grade-level content with a standards-based IEP. This way there is still a progression through the years toward grade-level performance.
The Benefits of Standards-Based IEPs
Many educational advocates, including the National Center for Learning Disabilities, are in favor of this approach. The belief is that a standards-based IEP better helps children stay on track for their grade.
Standards-based IEPs can help everyone—special education teachers, general education teachers, parents and other IEP team members—get on the same page. They encourage the team to discuss what the state expects kids in the grade to learn and where your child may fall short. The team can then work together to figure out what your child needs to catch up to his peers.
As a key member of your child’s IEP team, you will have a clearer understanding of how your child is doing compared to the state standards. Is your child a year behind in math, for instance, but on target in social studies? The standards-based IEP will help spell that out. It also may help you understand what you and the school can do to make it easier for your child to learn fourth-grade math, for instance.
The Downsides of Standards-Based IEPs
Some people criticize the use of educational standards to set IEP goals. They say this approach ignores a student’s individual needs and abilities. If a student’s academic skills are far below grade level, a standards-based IEP must be carefully written. For example, an eighth grader reading at a second-grade level will need a lot of support.
Critics tend to be most concerned about students with significant cognitive disabilities, such as autism and intellectual disabilities.
Standards-Based IEPs and Your Child
If your child has an IEP, or may soon have one, and you think a standards-based approach would benefit him, you’ll first need to find out if the approach is used in your state. Your state department of education, school district special education director, or your child’s IEP team can tell you if this is the way IEPs are created.
If you don’t think a standards-based IEP is right (or realistic) for your child discuss your concerns with the IEP team and the district special education director. You can help move the IEP team to focus on the skills your child needs the most.