The promise and burden of the Supreme Court ruling on disabilities
| March 27, 2017
Throughout the country, parents of children with disabilities and advocates are celebrating the Supreme Court's unanimous Endrew F. v. Douglas County decision on March 22. And they have every right to do so. For example, the decision says:
"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 Nancy J. Hammill, a national board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of America said, "The decision is a tremendous moral victory for the disability community. We know that marginal academic and functional achievement creates marginally successful adults."
The promise of this decision might even be transformative. However, a "promise" without a clear plan of action is unlikely to substantially benefit struggling learners.
Children will only benefit if parents, advocates and school personnel fully understand how to develop IEPs that are sufficiently and realistically ambitious. At a minimum, this requires careful attention to three parts of the IEP, parts that IEP teams often rush through:
- Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP)
- Relevant and measurable goals (and in some states, short-term objectives)
- Explicit progress monitoring plans
By knowledgeably and systematically focusing on the PLAAFP, IEP teams can logically derive relevant and measurable goals (and in some states, short-term objectives) that logically lead to explicit and valid progress monitoring plans. Giving short shrift to any one of these IEP components virtually assures an inadequate IEP, likely producing trivial rather than meaningful progress.
For a PLAAFP to effectively set the stage for relevant and measurable goals, it must be Comprehensive, Accurate, Relevant and Explicit.
Consider this example of Marylee, a struggling reader:
On the Qualitative Reading Inventory -5 (September 2016), Marylee achieved fourth-grade oral and silent instructional reading levels for stories and third-grade oral and silent instructional reading levels for informational materials. These levels are consistent with her extended school year (ESY) class work and the results of her ESY weekly curriculum-based measurement probes.
This data strongly suggests that Marylee's instructional level for reading stories or narrative materials should be fourth grade; until her instructional level for stories or narrative materials reaches fifth grade, she should not be asked to read fifth-grade stories.
The data also suggests that Marylee's instructional level for reading informational or expository materials should be third grade; until her instructional level for informational materials reaches fourth grade, she should not be asked to read such materials.
Independent reading, such as homework, should not exceed her current independent levels, which for stories is third grade, and for informational materials is second grade.
From this one PLAAFP statement, IEP teams can craft goals that are Meaningful, Measurable and Manageable (MMM). If they're derived directly from a PLAAFP that exemplifies the CARE principles, they're likely to be Meaningful and Measurable.
Here's one of Marylee’s annual goals, followed by short-term objectives that her state requires.
Goal 1: By the end of the fourth marking period (June 2017) on the QRI-5, Marylee will achieve a fifth-grade instructional level for silently reading narrative materials (e.g., stories) of 500 or more words.
Objective 1: By the end of the first marking period, Marylee will answer 7 of 8 questions correctly when silently reading narrative materials. She will achieve this on three successive occasions with new and unfamiliar fourth-grade narrative materials of 350-plus words from the XYZ readers.
[Objectives 2 and 3 have been omitted.]
Objective 4: By the end of the fourth marking period, Marylee will answer 7 of 8 questions correctly when silently reading narrative materials. She will achieve this on three successive occasions with new and unfamiliar fifth-grade narrative materials of 500-plus words from the XYZ readers.
Because Marylee's short-term objectives follow the same format, but for each marking period change only the bold italicized parts, the objectives are manageable for teachers and can readily lead to strategies for validly monitoring her progress.
Marylee's goal and her objectives suggest once weekly curriculum-based maze probes. These probes take only minutes to administer and mark. Graphing their results can quickly show if Marylee is making substantial progress or if she's stagnating or regressing.
If the progress monitoring probes indicate she's stagnating or regressing, it's critical to quickly identify what's blocking her progress and calling a meeting to develop solutions that might modify, replace or supplement her program. Without frequent progress monitoring, children can stay in inadequate programs that fail to meet their needs.
Clearly, the Supreme Court's decision does not support such programs.
Once the PLAAFP and goals have been agreed to, the services needed to achieve the goals are usually obvious. If school personnel will not or cannot provide the needed services, the Supreme Court's Endrew F. v. Douglas County decision puts a great deal of pressure on them. The decision said that:
"Every child should have a chance to meet challenging objectives.
"The nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue. ... A reviewing court may fairly expect those 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]."
A PLAAFP that adheres to CARE, with goals that adhere to MMM, creates a strong foundation for meeting these standards and justifying the kind and intensity of services needed.
Given the gist of the Endrew decision, it's clear that the Court rejected programs that offer children trivial or de minimis chances of making meaningful progress.
Thus, if Marylee's goals require small-group tutoring from a reading specialist, and the school insists that software programs supervised by teaching assistants will suffice, the Endrew decision says the school must offer "a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions." Given that the preponderance of research supports tutoring for struggling learners making trivial progress, but not reading software, schools would have little chance of successfully justifying their decision.
All in all, the Endrew decision puts a great burden on parents, advocates and school personnel. Most parents will have to invest considerable time and energy to learn how to develop high-quality IEPs. And IEP meetings will often take far more preparation, planning, time and effort than in the past.
To Hammill, a learning specialist with a long history of developing IEPs, this was clear: "The court's ruling will shift the burden to schools to justify education decisions based on this higher standard. However, parents will still need to be savvy enough to navigate the special system, informed enough to know their children’s needs, and tenacious enough to push through barriers."
So, is it worth it? Just look into your child or student's eyes and ask yourself, "Does she need a high-quality IEP that prepares her for a satisfying life, or one that offers her little chance of success, now and in the future?"
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