Ever since New York State adopted the common core standards, there has been questions about how these standards would apply to students with disabilities. The response to these questions has been fairly consistent—disabled students are expected to meet the same standards as their nondisabled peers. This was the answer that the U.S. Department of Education gave earlier this year to New York State when they sought permission to test disabled students based on their developmental level rather than their chronological age. There also has been extensive discussion about schools using “standards-based goals” on student IEPs that align with the common core.
On November 16, 2015, the Offices of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and Special Education Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) further memorialized this expectation. Citing the need of disabled students to prepare for life after school, OSEP and OSERS stated that all IEPs should conform to “the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “in the 40 years since [the IDEA] was enacted, we have moved beyond simply providing children and youth with disabilities access to the school house….today, we want to assure that these students have no less than the same equal shot at the American dream as their nondisabled peers.”
According to the Dear Colleague letter, Committees on Special Education must ensure that a student’s educational program features grade-level standards. At the same time, the program must be sufficiently individualized so that the child can progress through the curriculum. According to OSEP and OSERS, “the [CSE] may consider the special education instruction that has been provided to the child, the child’s previous rate of academic growth, and whether the child is on track to achieve grade-level proficiency within the year.” In cases where children are significantly behind grade level, CSEs should develop goals that are “ambitious but achievable,” and “goals should be sufficiently ambitious to help close [any grade-level] gap.”
OSEP and OSERS did recognize that there are a “very small number” of students with cognitive disabilities so severe that grade level academic performance is not realistic. With these students, states are allowed to establish “alternate academic achievement standards.” These alternate standards must be “clearly related to grade-level content,” but they may be “restricted in scope or complexity or take the form of introductory or prerequisite skills.”
In sum, the Dear Colleague letter puts a further onus on school districts to shift their IEP development procedures to incorporate the same academic standards that apply to all students. This will primarily be demonstrated in the development of “standards-based goals.”