Remember that the IEP is a binding document for the provision of services between the district and the parents."

The IEP Process Explained

Origins and Purpose

Although the legal precedence for inclusion can be traced to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, it was really the parents of children with disabilities that encouraged legislators to adopt the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975. This legislation required school districts to include and educate students with special needs and to create specialized academic plans for them. In 1990, EAHCA was renamed The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

With such honorable beginnings, it makes sense that the individualized education program (IEP), or sometimes called individual education plan, process was intended to be centered on the student. Whatever the IEP includes, its purpose is always the same: to tailor an educational plan for the child so that he or she can reach his or her full potential.

The First Step: Determining Eligibility for Services

Who Qualifies?

Before a student can receive special education services, he or she must be evaluated for eligibility. Under IDEA, there are currently 13 categories under which a child can receive these services:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional disturbance
  5. Hearing impairment
  6. Intellectual disability*
  7. Multiple disabilities
  8. Orthopedic impairment
  9. Other health impairment
  10. Specific learning disability
  11. Speech or language impairment
  12. Traumatic brain injury
  13. Visual impairment

*ID has also been referred to as “Mental Retardation” (MR) in the past, and the term and its acronym may be used colloquially or in older documentation. It is not, however, a currently accepted practice to refer to individuals with intellectual disabilities as mentally retarded.

How Can I Have My Child/Student Evaluated for Eligibility?

As a parent, it is very simple. If you think that your child may qualify for special education services, you need only to request an evaluation. You can do this by contacting you child’s teacher, the school psychologist or the school principal. A group of qualified personnel will decide whether to evaluate or not and create a plan for the evaluation. The district has 60 days from the date of your giving permission to evaluate to complete the evaluation. Some states have administrative code that defines the length of time the team has to decide how and whether to evaluate, but not all do so. Any and all decisions regarding evaluation require the school district to inform and invite the parent to be a participant. There should be no decisions about whether or how to evaluate without the parent being a part of the team’s discussion.

Teachers can also refer students for evaluation, but this should happen after attempts have been made to remedy problems without special education services. If such attempts have been made, and the child continues to struggle, while varied from school to school, the next step may be initiating an intervention under RTI, or convening the school’s student services team (SST) to discuss the student’s performance. At this meeting, the general education teacher should bring work samples and other data such as reading and math scores, behavioral charts and writing samples. The evaluation team can then decide whether to refer the child for an evaluation, or suggest that the child continue without special education services.

If the team suspects that a child has a learning or behavioral impairment, it will work together to determine what tests and data will be gathered.  This can include a variety of performance-based tests, such as the Woodcock Johnson, Third Edition (WJIII) or the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT), as well as cognitive and behavioral functioning tests. It’s important to note that NO testing can begin until the parent consent by giving written permission to evaluate.

Following the testing and gathering of existing data, the evaluation team will meet again to discuss the results. Any time the decisions are made regarding evaluation, the parent is invited to participate. Each of the 13 categories of disability included in IDEA has unique qualification requirements.  However, the most common disability (roughly half of those evaluated) are in the category of specific learning disability (SLD).  Under the SLD category, if the discrepancy between achievement and ability (measured by the discrepancy between IQ and academic test results) is large enough, the child will qualify for services.

A note about the discrepancy method and SLD: As a part of the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, school districts were asked not to rely solely upon the discrepancy method for identifying SLD, because it makes it very difficult to identify any child who is younger than the third grade age level. Nonetheless, a large number of school districts still rely upon the so-called discrepancy model for SLD, when in reality they can acquire enough pre-existing data with RTI to document eligibility.  The other 12 categories have varying requirements, but none are similar at all to those required for SLD.  Parents should be careful to observe when SLD standards are being applied to other categories, such as Other Health Impairments, when there is no legal provision to do so.

Also, keep in mind that there are some diagnoses that teachers and school psychologists are not qualified to make. Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), autism, and most physical and developmental delays require medical diagnoses. If you suspect that a student has one of these impairments, it is vital to include a medical professional (such as the child’s pediatrician) in the evaluation process. Also, children with developmental delays or physical impairments who receive routine medical care will most likely be diagnosed in the pediatrician’s office and will begin receiving services early in life. Children under age three can  receive early intervention services through school districts (depending on the state of residence) or other state-funded programs.

The bottom line is that in each category of disability there must be an impact on the student’s education caused by the disability, and the student must be deemed in need of specially designed instruction. After all, not all children with a disability require special education services.

Step Two: The IEP

If your student or child is diagnosed with a disability, the next step will be to design a program for him or her that will address his or her unique needs. This program will be laid out in a very specific, very long document called the individualized education program (IEP) that will be reviewed annually in the IEP meeting. Annual is defined as no more than 365 days; meetings held after this date are considered non-compliant. An initial IEP (the first one) must be in place within 30 days of the evaluation meeting determining eligibility.

Special education teachers often use the term “IEP” interchangeably to mean the formal document and the meeting in which it is discussed. To avoid confusion, you should refer to the document as the “IEP,” and the meeting as the “IEP Meeting” or “annual review.”

Who attends the IEP meeting?

Every IEP meeting must have in attendance the special education teacher, district representative (often an administrator, but not required to be), someone to interpret test data, and a general education teacher; the is parent invited and encouraged to attend. Also commonly seen in IEP meetings are the student (who are required to attend from the age of 16 years on), school psychologist, adaptive physical education teacher and service providers such as speech and language specialists and occupational therapists.

While all five member roles are required, it is possible for one member to serve more than one role. For example, a special education teacher is typically trained to interpret test data, so he or she can play the role of that position as well as the special education teacher.  Each person on the team has a unique role.  The special education teacher knows what forms of specially designed instruction can be easily done in that school; the general education teacher is an expert in the general education curriculum of the grade in which the student is current placed; the district representative ensures that the IEP is legally compliant and all the stipulations of the IEP can be put in place; the interpreter of test data helps the team to understand the testing information. Finally, the parent, is not mandated to attend, has the unique role of understanding the child from birth and outside of a school setting.

What Goes into the IEP?

Everything but the kitchen sink! All levity aside, a good IEP is a long and very specific IEP. It is important to remember that the IEP is a binding document for the provision of services between the district and the parents. This means that if a district does not provide services that are promised in the IEP, it is non-compliant with the IEP and the law. It does not mean that if a child has not made as much progress as the team would like to see, that the teacher or district should be sued; it also doesn’t mean that anyone will go to jail.

Inside the IEP, you should expect to find all of the following:

  • Present Levels: This is a snapshot of who the child is and how he is doing right now. This should include eligibility information, contact information for the parents and a summary of current work. This summary should include data such as reading and math test results, current grades, observed skills, behavioral referrals and records of work habits. In short, it should be specific. Teachers should avoid writing generalities or subjective comments such as “Johnny is a well-behaved boy.” Space should be provided for family and parental input. In essence, the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP) should state the students strengths and weaknesses, classroom performance, and provide measurable baseline data from which goals are created.
  • Offer of Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): This is commonly referred to as “placement” and/or “services.” This is the binding part of the contract, in which the district offers classroom and/or ancillary services such as speech therapy or adaptive physical education. It should specify how often (number of days in the school year) the child will receive these services and the duration of the services (how many minutes per session). This section cannot use variable terms, such as “as needed,” rather should spell out the minimum number and times for provision of services.
  • Goals: Goals are written to provide measures of progress. Goals can be academic, behavioral, social or transition-based, and should always be written for recognized areas of need. For example, if a student is far behind peers in math, he or she should have a math goal. Goals should be achievable (the team should agree that the student could reasonably meet the goal in one year) and measurable (the teacher must feel that he or she can provide hard data and work samples to show progress toward the goal).
  • Accommodations and Modifications: Accommodations and modifications are changes to the classroom environment that may be necessary to assist the student. Teachers and parents are often unclear about the difference between an accommodation and a modification. The general rule is this: if it helps the student to complete the same work at the same level as his peers, it is an accommodation; if it changes the work, or the work is completed at a different level, it is a modification. For example, allowing a child to type his notes rather than hand write them is an accommodation. An adult typing them for him is a modification.
  • Transition Plan: Recent legislation requires that students who will turn 16 within the life of the IEP must have a transition goal and plan.
  • Signature Page and Meeting Notes: Each member of the IEP team typically signs, indicating that he or she was present at the meeting and approves the notes from the meeting. In addition, the parent must consent to the accommodations, modifications and placement (offer of FAPE) from the district for the initial IEP to be implemented.

What Happens at the IEP Meeting?

Every year, the IEP team convenes for the annual review (AR). The AR is designed to gather all the IEP team members in one location to update one another on the student’s needs and performance by reviewing progress toward goals and looking at new data like work samples and recent testing. Every three years, the team will also meet to discuss the student’s continuing eligibility for services. This meeting is called the triennial review (Tri) and is usually combined with the AR.

Many new teachers are under the impression that the entire IEP should be written during these meetings. While some of the writing does happen there, the team should come to the meeting with a first draft of goals, present levels, suggested accommodations and modifications and an offer of FAPE. If every member came to the table with nothing prepared, the IEP meeting would last for hours and hours. More suggestions on how to write the IEP can be found in The Collaborative IEP: How Parents and Teachers can Work Together.

Step Three: Follow Up

The IEP meeting should not be the only time that teachers, parents and other service providers discuss a child’s progress. Remember that the IEP is a working document and can be modified and changed as needed throughout the school year. It is important to keep the line of communication open between team members and to continuously work together to best meet the needs of each student.

Read more about the IEP process on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Beth Katz

About Author: Beth Katz

Beth Wenbourne Katz is an education consultant and freelance writer. She holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education from San Diego State University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from California State University, Chico. Beth has taught in the California public schools, working primarily with students with learning and behavioral needs. Beth is an outspoken advocate for education equality and for the rights of minority populations. She lives in Sacramento with her husband, Andy, a pediatrician, and her beautiful daughter, Juliet. Follow Beth on Google+.