For part one of this series, please click here.

In my many decades of critiquing special education evaluations, IEPs, and progress reports from various New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware schools, and in speaking to innumerable parents, teachers and other IEP team members, I’ve gained an overwhelming impression: Little, if any, valid progress monitoring occurs.

Instead, many special education teachers and case managers rely primarily on their subjective memories to judge their students’ progress.

Subjective Impressions

As one of many damning reviews that Moby Dick received in 1851, the London Athenaeum wrote: "This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact…. [an] absurd book."

In contrast, Harper’s New Monthly expressed awe for the book and author: "Certain it is that the rapid, pointed hints which are often thrown out, with the keenness and velocity of a harpoon, penetrate deep into the heart of things, showing that the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description." Tremendous differences, yet the critics were reviewing the same book.

This is interesting, but how does it relate to special education? It makes clear that subjective opinions often tell us more about the teachers’ and support personnel themselves than they do about the SRs.

Consider this composite example from innumerable report cards that I’ve studied: "Shelly’s an emerging reader. She’s making progress." Explicitly, what does "emerging" mean? How much progress did she make? What can she now do that she couldn’t do two months ago? Is she on track to achieve all her IEP’s realistically challenging goals for reading?

As with many opinions describing remedial progress, verifiable facts are needed to substantiate their validity. As you’ll soon see in Jamil’s example, frequent and valid progress monitoring provides verifiable facts. Such facts take us away from the never-ending clash of unverifiable opinions that often characterizes literacy criticism and special education.

Imperfect Memory

Given the severe limitations of human memory — we quickly forget where we put our keys, why we walked into a room, what that phone number was — how can teachers and case managers remember all of their students’ unrecorded scores? How can they remember that 22 days ago, Jon correctly answered 5 of 9 reading questions, Jamil 7 of 9, Sheila 3 of 9, and …?

They can’t, and so parents, professionals, and others get progress reports full of vague statements like “making progress” or “beginning to grasp.” They don’t get explicit statements that accurately indicate what the SR can or can’t do.

This statement does. It’s explicit. It tells readers if Jamil made progress and what he can do now:

"Over four silent reading sessions, Jamil independently read and correctly answered, without lookbacks, a total of 32 of 36 (88%) literal and inferential questions from new and previously unseen mid-third grade non-fiction reading materials. His previous set of four similar probes, given 6-weeks ago, generated a lower success rate of 52%. This suggests that for nonfiction reading, he has substantially improved. For nonfiction reading, he is nearly an independent mid-third grade reader."

Though this statement is explicit, it need not add unnecessary complexity to the workloads of teachers and other IEP team members. Districts can accomplish this by putting such statements into computer-generated boilerplate with dropdown words, phrases, and figures to replace any of the underlined items.

If carefully constructed and chosen, the dropdown options can produce highly personalized statements of progress for each SR. Such explicit and goal-directed personalization can reduce the workloads of teachers and case managers while giving them, parents, and other personnel the critical progress monitoring information they need to understand if the teacher or IEP team needs to quickly revise or replace an unsuccessful program.

Quickly revising or replacing unsuccessful programs helps prevent the common trap of keeping SRs in programs that intensify their academic, social, and emotional struggles. It also helps schools meet the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that governs special education:

IDEA mandates that "Each child’s IEP must contain … A description of — How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals [in his or her IEP] ... will be measured; and … When periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided…." [§300.320(a)(3); italics added]

Frequent and valid progress monitoring also provides critical information that helps schools satisfy the Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) unanimous 2017 decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. Here, SCOTUS was crystal clear about the purpose of IEPs:

"The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress. After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement. ... When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out' ... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives."

As an educator, I believe this statement strongly implies that schools have an obligation to explicitly know, at virtually every moment, the degree to which each special education student is achieving the goals in his IEP.

Moment-to-Moment Awareness

If teachers and case managers don’t accurately know if an SR’s progress is robust enough to achieve his IEP’s annual goals, they’re jeopardizing his future.

The reason is straightforward: They don’t know if and how his program needs minor tweaks or major revisions or replacement. Consequently, year-after-year, he may regress, stagnate, or make negligible progress. This may well create or exacerbate lifelong social, emotional, and vocational scars, scars antithetical to the purposes of education.

Not having ongoing records of progress monitoring can also cause great difficulty for IEP Teams and other school personnel who are challenged in a due-process hearing. SCOTUS’ Endrew F. decision states:

"A reviewing court [e.g., a US District Court] may fairly expect [school] authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances." [Italics added]

Without such data, it’s unlikely that schools could meet this requirement. Without such data, how could school personnel cogently and responsively explain why and how an intelligent and verbally adept SR’s IEPs remained virtually intact despite years of regression, stagnation and negligible progress?

Long-term Consequences

As previously said, failure to validly and frequently monitor an SR’s progress can create or exacerbate lifelong difficulties.

In my decades of reviewing special-education records, this phenomenon frequently emerged: Year-after-year, many SRs made negligible progress in reading and writing. Some regressed. Many behavior and mental-health issues, such as disruptive behavior and extreme anxiety, emerged with progressively greater intensity. Why?

Because their programs frequently failed to meet their academic, social-emotional, and physical needs. By high school, some had been frustrated so long that they tuned out or dropped out. In many cases, their long-term chances for an emotionally, socially, and economically satisfying life had evaporated. Just ask an assembly of adult SRs whose reading, writing, and emotional roadblocks continue to plague them.

"‘Frustration’ is a huge problem in dyslexic adults caused by poor identification and intervention in schools. Large numbers of adults leave school without adult levels of English language skills; the term functional literate is used to describe those adults who have enough skills to operate in a simplistic way in society."

"Dyslexics as a group are commonly guided towards lower level vocational courses leading to lower paid and lower skilled careers…. They would see their peers moving up at a much faster pace financially and this is likely to cause resentment, frustration, and in some cases, anger."

Understandable Complaints

Teachers and case managers often make understandable complaints against frequent progress monitoring. It takes considerable time to develop, administer, and score the probes. They’re already overwhelmed. For many schools, however, there’s an effective and relatively inexpensive solution. Train teacher aides to administer, mark, and record typical curriculum-based progress-monitoring probes.

Administering a probe to a SR usually takes 3 to 10 minutes. For older and more advanced SRs, it’s often possible to administer probes to small groups. Mechanically, probes are easy to administer and mark, especially if schools adopt Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM), a well-researched and often computerized means of quickly measuring critical aspects of reading progress.

Schools that can’t purchase CBM software have another option. They can download free probes from the internet. Many sites have a good array to choose from.

Potential Benefits

Here, in one place, are several potential benefits of frequent and valid progress monitoring. As with most things in special education, the outcomes depend on the knowledge, skill, resources, efforts, and enthusiasm of the teachers, parents, other members of the IEP team, and the administration.

  • Knowing if an SR is making important, meaningful progress in line with his IEP’s ambitious, but realistic goals.
  • Knowing if an SR’s program needs revision or replacement.
  • Identifying the barriers blocking an SR’s success.
  • Knowing that SRs who make better than expected progress may need programs that are more ambitious yet comfortable.
  • Revising or replacing programs in one-to-two weeks.
  • Helping SRs see themselves succeeding, thus opening the door for pride, satisfaction, confidence, and motivation to walk in.
  • Helping IEP Teams and other teachers and support staff comply with IDEA.
  • Helping IEP Teams, parent members, other teachers, and support staff see themselves as actively improving the quality of SRs’ lives.