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Last Updated On: August 3rd, 2022

Students who receive special education services in the public schools must have an IEP, or “Individualized Education Program.” An IEP is a legal document; once all the paperwork has been signed, the services and accommodations in the IEP are the legal right of the student, and non-compliance with the IEP can be met with legal action from the parents or their lawyer.

Who Qualifies for an IEP?

In order to receive an IEP, a student must have a documented disability that prevents them from accessing the general education curriculum. These disabilities are classified under 13 categories:

  1. Specific Learning Disability (SLD): This includes dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia
  2. Other Health Impairment: This includes ADHD, along with other conditions that might limit a child’s strength, energy, or alertness
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  4. Emotional Disturbance (ED)
  5. Speech or Language Impairment, which includes difficulties with expressive language and/or language comprehension
  6. Visual Impairment, including blindness
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing Impairment
  9. Deaf-blindness, which includes students with both severe hearing and vision loss
  10. Orthopedic impairment, which includes cerebral palsy
  11. Intellectual Disability, which used to be called mental retardation
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Multiple Disabilities: Students with more than one condition covered by IDEA, with educational needs that can’t be met in a single program

In order to receive a diagnosis that qualifies for an IEP, students must have documentation by a psychiatrist, teacher, and/or doctor identifying the student as having one of these conditions. Documentation can include classroom and school observations, review of developmental milestones, standardized assessments, mental health screening, parent or caregiver interviews, teacher input, and review of the child’s educational history. In most cases, students must have a documented disability AND be unable to access the general education curriculum in order to qualify for an IEP. This means that a student who can see adequately while wearing glasses, or a student with an anxiety order that is well-controlled by medication, would likely not qualify.

Once the IEP team determines that a student qualifies, school staff must write and implement the IEP within 30 days.

What does the IEP include?

The IEP consists of multiple sections, including the following:

  • Current performance: This can include standardized evaluation, teacher assessments and observations, and reports by school staff and support services.
  • Annual goals: These are goals that the student can reasonably hope to accomplish in a year, which may reflect the general education curriculum or a modified program. They can be academic and/or social-emotional. They must be measurable, and the IEP will also state how they will be measured.
  • Special education and related services: This section lists the services to be provided to the child. It might include professional services such as speech or occupational therapy, training or professional development for staff who will assist the child, and special software or equipment.
  • Accommodations: These are alterations to the way a task or instruction is presented that allow a student with a disability to access the same curriculum and meet the same objectives as other students. For example, a student with a visual impairment might need a large-print textbook or assistive technology that reads print aloud, and a student with dysgraphia might use a text-to-speech program to dictate an essay. In both cases, the students would be using the same text as their general education peers and completing the same assignments, just in a different way. Other common accommodations include preferential seating, graphic organizers, receiving a copy of the class notes, frequent breaks, and extended time to complete tests and assignments.
  • Modifications: While accommodations allow students to access the same curriculum and objectives as their peers, modifications adjust a student’s program to allow them to achieve their goals. Modifications are appropriate when the content of the curriculum includes standards that a student with a disability can’t reasonably reach. Students who work with a modified curriculum may work towards a standard high school diploma or a modified diploma or certificate, depending on the extent of the modifications.
  • Participation with non-disabled children: Schools are required to provide all students with an “appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment,” which is often the general education setting. The IEP must explain the extent to which the child will be in classes or activities that don’t include nondisabled peers.
  • Participation in state and district-wide tests: The IEP must state any accommodations and modifications the student needs for standardized tests. If a test is not appropriate for the child, the IEP must state why and what alternative testing or arrangements the child will receive.
    Note: Students who wish to receive accommodations on the ACT, SAT, or Advanced Placement exams must apply for them through a separate process, as the accommodations don’t automatically transfer. If a student has an IEP and uses them regularly, however, similar accommodations for these exams are usually approved.

How often is the IEP updated?

The IEP must be updated at least once a year in a meeting called the “annual review,” which includes the parents, several members of the IEP team (including at least one special educator and one general educator), and—when appropriate—the student. During the annual review, the team discusses the student’s progress, whether the student is meeting their goals, the goals for the new year, and any revisions to the student’s individual program. The team can meet more than once per year if the need arises, but it’s often easier to have a smaller meeting with a single teacher or therapist rather than assembling the entire IEP team.

What are the advantages to having an IEP?

An IEP can play a vital role in ensuring a “free and appropriate education” for a student with special needs. Once an accommodation, modification, or related service is listed on the IEP, the school district has a legal obligation to provide it free of charge. If the school district is not able to provide the services promised by the IEP, it is required to pay for private services or even placement in a private school where such services can be provided. If a family believes that the school is not meeting the obligations of the IEP, it can take legal action for a private placement. In addition, students with an IEP may be eligible for testing accommodations that can help make the college admissions process more accessible.

Are there any disadvantages to having an IEP?

Unfortunately, a special education teacher shortage means that a student with an IEP might get a less qualified teacher than a general education student. While the expertise of well-qualified and experienced special education teachers and staff can be invaluable, there simply aren’t enough of these teachers for every student with special needs. As a result, a student in a self-contained special education class might end up with a less qualified teacher than the general education class. In co-taught, inclusive classes, students with diverse needs are often grouped together in a class with general education students, which can be challenging if both teachers aren’t highly qualified. Unfortunately, the legal burdens and paperwork required by the IEP likely contribute to high teacher turnover rates in special education.

While issues such as teacher shortages are not supposed to officially play into the IEP process, parents of a student with a disability who doesn’t require extensive services might push for a student to be placed in the general education setting with accommodations rather than self-contained special education classes.

Are there any alternatives to an IEP for students who need accommodations or extra help?

A 504 plan is a legal document which is less extensive than an IEP and provides accommodations within the general education setting. A student who struggles with depression, for example, might have a 504 plan that allows for flexible deadlines while maintaining rigorous academic standards. An additional possibility is Response to Intervention, which allows students who are falling behind to receive interventions, such as a research-based reading program, before going through the disability assessment process. In some cases, interventions are so successful that the student is dropped from consideration for an IEP.

Can a student with an IEP transition out of special education?

If a student with a disability is meeting grade-level standards without accommodations or modifications, that student may no longer need their IEP. At that point, the student may transition to a 504 plan to receive more limited accommodations in the general education setting or leave special education altogether.

Does the IEP transfer to college?

Students with disabilities can receive accommodations in college, but the process is not automatic. In high school, the burden is mostly placed on teachers and school staff to make sure that all students have access to the accommodations in their IEPs. In college, students who choose to register with their school’s Office of Disability Services must provide documentation of their disability in order to receive accommodations, such as extended time for tests. While professors and staff are obligated to provide accommodations, it is the student’s responsibility to ask for them. Many colleges require recent assessments and documentation of the student’s disability, so students planning on receiving services in college might want to request updated testing (such as IQ and achievement tests) during their last two years of high school.

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