Districts and special education departments all over the country are talking about Endrew F. versus Douglas County School District, the US Supreme Court case, decided on March 22. Drew's family withdrew him from public school and enrolled him in a private school for students with disabilities because they did not feel the school was using sufficient evidence-based practices to ensure his progress. Drew subsequently made progress in his new school that his family argued he should have been able to make within the public school system. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, determined that Drew's family was right: They ruled that IDEA intends for students to have more than physical inclusion and make minimum progress, but that students should receive an appropriately-challenging curriculum, and we should expect comparably rigorous outcomes. Specifically, the judgment argued that a "child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances." (Endrew v. Douglas County School District, 2017).
The justices spent a great deal of time in careful thought about the expectations we should be setting and the language surrounding those expectations. They struggled with words like "appropriate," "equal," and the like and were concerned that if they changed the expectation that it would prompt a burdening of the system with lawsuits. In the end, they acknowledged that while we cannot expect every student with a disability to achieve grade level standards, that we should expect grade level achievement when possible. And when we cannot expect grade level achievement, we should be expecting an equally challenging curriculum and student success within that curriculum.
Given the unanimous ruling and the new precedent this sets, some schools are anxious to review their own policies, procedures, and tools to ensure they are meeting the legal requirements. But this court decision was not a surprise to those in the research community who have studied IEPs over the past 15 years. We know that teams continue to struggle with writing high quality, measurable goals and finding ways to measure progress within the general curriculum in a way that everyone on the team can interpret and use to make decisions. Specifically, the research indicates that goals are often not measurable and not related to the general curriculum (e.g., Jung, 2007; Ruble, McGrew, Dalrymple, & Jung, 2010; Sanches- Ferreira et al., 2013). In fact, this is the area of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with which states have historically struggled the most (Etscheidt, 2006).
To meet the requirements of IDEA and, subsequently, Endrew F. versus Douglas County School District, it is imperative that teams work together to determine measures of student performance and ensure the criteria are comparably rigorous to those requirements students without disabilities have--that we are shooting as high as we can, given the data we have on the student and the evidence-based interventions we are putting into place. We also have to use our measures regularly to monitor progress and ensure that our interventions are working. Goals should not live from one IEP year to the next. Progress must be evident, and to meet the spirit of IDEA, this progress should be evident in natural routines and settings, not only with a specialist or in a special education setting.
Goal Attainment Scaling
Goal attainment scaling is considered recommended practice for measuring student progress toward individualized goals (Cytrynbaum, Ginath, Birdwell, & Brandt, 1979; Ruble, et al., 2013). Using Goal Attainment Scaling, teams develop individualized, leveled descriptions of progress for a student. Teams describe where the student is now in observable terms. They then determine where they would like to see the student be at the end of a year, and describe this. Finally, they pick points between baseline and where they want the student to be and describe these. Below is an example of a Goal Attainment Scale.
Goal attainment scaling is a process that requires a bit of a learning curve. But the good news is that it can be considered a ruler of sorts--one that can accommodate many types of measurement. Not every goal should be measured using a percentage--not every goal can be measured with a percentage! Goal attainment scales allow us to use whatever measure makes the most sense for that goal. If we want a student to persist in reading longer, then duration measured in minutes may be best. If we want a student to use more words to initiate conversations with friends, then a frequency count may be best. If we want a student to complete a certain type of task with less help, then level of independence may be the right measure. Goal attainment scaling requires that teams have a keen understanding of measurement, but then the scale accommodates all of those types.
Schools should be asking tough questions to ensure they are compliant with the law, and, more importantly, offering students every opportunity possible. Does your school have in place a way to measure progress that is clear, transparent, and uses best practice for measuring learning? Are the data presented visually and available to anyone on the team at any time? Are teams collecting data together and discussing progress data regularly? Do parents understand the data collection methods that are being used? Are the administrators able to see and interpret data for a student's IEP and progress data for the school's IEPs easily?
For a deeper dive into this topic see From Goals to Growth: Intervention and Support in Every Classroom.
Endrew v. Douglas County School District, 580 U. S. 2017.
Etscheidt, S. K. (2006). Progress monitoring: Legal issues and recommendations for IEP teams. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(3), 56–60.
Jung, L. A. (2007). Writing SMART Objectives and strategies that fit the ROUTINE. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(4), 54–58.
Ruble, L. A., McGrew, J., Dalrymple, N., & Jung, L. A. (2010). Examining the quality of IEPs for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1459–1470. doi:10.1007/s10803-
Ruble, L., McGrew, J., Toland, M., Dalrymple, N., & Jung, L. A. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of COMPASS web-based and face-to-face teacher coaching in autism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(3), 566–572.
Sanches-Ferreira, M., Lopes-dos-Santos, P., Alves, S., Santos, M., & Silveira-Maia, M. (2013). How individualized are the Individualized Education Plans (IEP): An analysis of the contents and quality of the IEP’s goals. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28(4), 507–520.