The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) issued a recent letter to provide guidance regarding aligning a child’s IEP with the State’s academic standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled. According to OSEP, “[r]esearch has demonstrated that children with disabilities who struggle in reading and math can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services, and supports are provided.” Conversely, "low expectations can lead to children with disabilities receiving less challenging instruction that is below grade-level content standards" and "the children do not learn what they need to succeed in the grade in which they are enrolled."
For children with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take an alternative assessment, the State is permitted to define alternate academic achievement standards. But these standards must be aligned with the State’s academic content standards and promote access to the general education curriculum.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in order to make a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available to each child with a disability, the child’s IEP must be designed to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum. Under the law, the general education curriculum is the same curriculum as for nondisabled children. OSEP interprets “the same curriculum as for nondisabled children” to be "the curriculum that is based on a State’s academic content standards for the grade in which a child is enrolled".
OSEP notes that under the IDEA's implementing regulations, "specially designed instruction is the critical element in the definition of “special education” as adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and ensure access of the child to the general education curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children."
In developing an IEP, the IEP Team must consider how a child’s specific disability impacts his or her ability to advance appropriately toward attaining his or her annual goals that are aligned with applicable State content standards during the period covered by the IEP. For example, the child’s IEP Team may consider the special education instruction that has been provided to the child, the child’s previous rate of academic growth, and whether the child is on track to achieve grade-level proficiency within the year.
The letter indicates that "in a situation where a child is performing significantly below the level of the grade in which the child is enrolled, an IEP Team should determine annual goals that are ambitious but achievable. In other words, the annual goals need not necessarily result in the child’s reaching grade-level within the year covered by the IEP, but the goals should be sufficiently ambitious to help close the gap. The IEP must also include the specialized instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability necessary to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the State academic content standards that apply to all children in the State."
OSEP's letter includes an example of how an IEP Team could apply the interpretation of “general education curriculum” presented in the letter. For a sixth grade student who is reading at a 2nd grade level, but with listening comprehension at grade level, and who understands grade level materials read to him out loud, the local education agency could provide a variety of supports. These could include an IEP goal in reading fluency, modifications to all reading assignments by shortening reading assignments, audio text books, and electronic versions of assignments in the form of synthetic speech. In this way, this hypothetical child could be provided with grade level specialized instruction and support services the child needs to reach the content standards for which the child is enrolled. The letter cautions that the instructional supports for any given child must be highly individualized and fact-specific to meet the child's unique needs.