Rethinking student progress in special education

When a child is identified as needing special education instruction to meet their learning abilities, the needs are documented in an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. Teams work together to develop IEP goals and create a plan to teach a child the skills needed to meet the goals over the course of a calendar year. Traditionally, academic and behavioral goals have focused on learning targets related to a single measure, often using skills that are not directly tied to a grade level standard. Focus has often been placed on reading and math, completing general comprehension or problem solving tasks, or improving a single behavioral outcome.

A “standards based” IEP is different because it is directly connected to the same skills children are learning within general education classrooms. The student’s identified learning goals are developed directly from the skills identified within the Iowa Core. Standards based IEPs give teachers and families a clear understanding of student strengths in all skill areas, as well as the areas that need additional focus at their individual level. Standards based IEPs also offer a clear understanding of how a child’s skills compare to what is expected at each grade level.

Once the IEP team identifies the level a student is performing at, an IEP goal is written to follow the path of skill development to meet the target. Goals are written with the grade level expectation in view, but are often linked to skills that are below grade level if a child needs earlier skill instruction in order to be successful.

A unique feature of a standards based IEP is that the IEP goal is often not based on a single skill, but is often a targeted “cluster” of skills that the IEP team has deemed the most important for that student to learn. Those skill clusters become the focus of the instruction that is provided by the special education teacher in collaboration with the rest of the IEP team.

Progress on standards based IEPs is often collected differently as well. Rather than giving a routine and repetitive test every two weeks, standards based IEPs are best monitored through a variety of methods, including daily work, observation, and traditional assessment of student performance. This allows a variety of learning experiences to be included to determine if a student is making progress on the identified goal.

Standards based IEPs are built on student strengths and offer a road map towards meeting grade level or other identified standards/skills. This allows for truly individualized learning that is founded in what students can do, rather than what they cannot do…..and that is a much better standard for students to learn by!

Kortney Owen is a special education consultant with Central Rivers Area Education Agency. She can be reached at