September 8, 2016
Goals, Goals, Goals
The Legal Requirements for IEP Goals and Objectives
An IEP Must Contain Objective, Measurable, Annual Goals
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) a school district (or local educational agency (LEA)) is required to ensure each IEP includes a statement of measurable, annual goals designed to meet the child's disability-related needs (34 CFR 300.320). The requirement is provided so that an IEP team has the ability to measure and monitor whether the student is making progress in all areas of need.
Goals Drive Services
Often times parents may have a sinking feeling that their child with special needs absolutely requires more special education and/or related services in order to access an appropriate education under the law. An important thing for parents to know is that goals drive services.
Therefore, if a student has significant fine motor issues, and requires occupational therapy (OT) services to access an appropriate education, the IEP team should devise appropriate goals to address all the student's educationally related needs in the area of fine motor, based on an OT evaluation. Let's say, for example, the student is unable to tie their shoes, struggles with handwriting skills to the point where his/her script is not legible, and has severe sensory processing issues, such that he/she is constantly seeking sensory input, leading to off-task behavior. If the IEP team only has one (1) goal regarding the student being able to tie their shoes, very limited OT services will follow. In this instance, an IEP team should provide measurable, annual OT goals designed to address each of the student's fine motor needs, and then decide the amount of services required to support the student in meeting those goals.
Unfortunately, we often see where an LEA will provide an insufficient number of goals in a student's area of need, which directly results in a lack of services. Something for parents to consider during the IEP process is whether the student has a sufficient number of goals in all of the student's areas of need.
Evaluations Should Assist with Devising Baselines and Goals
In theory, special education assessments/evaluations should be conducted to identify all areas of need. Such evaluations should further provide an IEP team with objective data and baselines of current abilities, such that appropriate goals can be devised in all areas of need. Some evaluations do a better job than others, but ideally, evaluations identify needs, needs should drive goals, and goals should drive services.
"According to 34 CFR 300.320 (a)(2), each IEP developed for a child with a disability must include: A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals designed to: Meet the child's needs that result from the child's disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum; Meet each of the child's other educational needs that result from the child's disability. For children with disabilities who take alternate assessments aligned to alternate academic achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives."
Goals Must Be "Objective" and "Pass the Stranger Test"
There are several appellate cases which discuss the appropriateness of goals in a student's IEP. Courts and hearing officers have often found that IEPs contain vague or immeasurable goals, leading to a denial of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). For example, The U.S. District Court, District of Alaska upheld an administrative finding that a district's IEPs for three successive years were not reasonably calculated to provide a meaningful educational benefit and, therefore, denied the student FAPE. The denial was based, in part, on the district's violations of the IDEA's procedural safeguards. (Anchorage Sch. Dist., 51 IDELR 230 (SEA AK 2008), aff'd, 54 IDELR 29 (D. Alaska 2009)). A portion of the Court's decision was based on the fact that the student's IEPs did not contain measurable goals and objectives.
Courts and hearing officers have often found IEPs containing vague or immeasurable goals. See, e.g., In re: Student with a Disability, 50 IDELR 236 (SEA NY 2008). In Mason City Community School District, 46 IDELR 148 (SEA IA 2006), the administrative law judge suggested that a properly written IEP goal will pass the "stranger test." That is, a person unfamiliar with the student's IEP would be able to implement the goal, assess the student's progress on the goal, and determine whether the student's progress was satisfactory.
In sum, as part of a legally defensible IEP, it is imperative that goals be provided in all areas of need, and the goals must be objective enough for a new IEP team member to come in and understand whether or not the student has made measureable progress on each goal. When a student has not made appropriate progress on his/her annual goals, the IEP team must consider adding additional services in order to support the student in achieving his/her goals.
-Elizabeth Curtis, Esq.