DOE to educators: Hold special education students to grade-level standards

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African American child in a wheelchair in a library

Every child has an equal shot at the American Dream

As the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act nears, the U.S. Department of Education is taking new steps aimed at pushing educators to maintain high expectations for students with disabilities.

“To help make certain that children with disabilities are held to high expectations and have meaningful access to a State’s academic content standards, we write to clarify that an individualized education program (IEP) for an eligible child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must be aligned with the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled,” the DOE wrote in a seven-page Dear Collegue letter [PDF] released to educators nationwide November 16.

The IDEA mandates that IEPs be designed to ensure children are making progress in the “general education curriculum.” This term is not defined, although the DOE’s regulations, interpreting the IDEA, further state that the general education curriculum is the “the same curriculum as nondisabled students,” and that IEPs must be constructed “so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.”

In a guidance, which is not legally binding, the DOE states that it interprets this language to mean that IEPs must be designed to meet the state’s standards for each grade, with the goal of ensuring that students remain on track to graduate.

The only exception is for a small group of students with particularly severe disabilities, who are held to so-called alternative academic achievement standards. School districts are prevented from placing more than 1 percent of their student population in this category.

The guidance is not the only new resource the DOE is providing for educators. In addition, it has a new website featuring best practice in the field, a compilation of tips for teachers in classroom behavior intervention and support strategies, a blue print on teaching behavioral expectations in schools, and a tip sheet for parents with special education students transitioning into adulthood.

“In the 40 years since this law was enacted, we have moved beyond simply providing children and youth with disabilities access to the school house,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a news release. “Today, we want to assure that these students have no less than the same equal shot at the American dream as their nondisabled peers.”