On November 16, 2015, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter providing guidance concerning the alignment of an individualized education program (IEP) with the state standards for academic grade-level content. The Department of Education stated that in adhering to federal laws requiring that all students within a state have the same academic content and standards for achievement, an IEP for an eligible child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must therefore align with the state academic content standards for the particular grade in which the student is enrolled.

Under the IDEA, an eligible child with a disability must be provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Accessing FAPE includes providing a child with a variety of services designed to meet their specific educational needs presently and in the future, as well as prepare the child for future employment opportunities and independent living situations. In order to achieve FAPE and provide these necessary services for a disabled child, the IEP must be designed to allow the child to access, be involved, and make progressions within the general education curriculum set forth by their state.

Part B of the IDEA however references “specially designed instruction.” Specialized instruction allows an eligible disabled student to access the general curriculum by adapting the content and teaching methods to best serve the unique needs of the student. This requires the IEP team to make individualized decisions regarding what services and methods of instruction will best allow the student to reach the goals set forth by their IEP in conjunction with state standards.

The Department of Education did acknowledge that there is a small population of children with significant cognitive disabilities that may prohibit their achievement from being measured in comparison to the state standards. In these instances, alternative academic achievement standards may be created. These standards must still align with the state’s academic content standards, however the alternative standards can take other forms. For example, in order to reach a goal of performing the entire activity at grade level, an alternative standard could be requiring mastery of the introductory and pre-requisite skills required to perform the activity. The Department of Education suggests that the IEP team create ambitious goals that may seek to close the gap between the child’s current academic level and the grade-level standard the state sets.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, research has shown that when provided with appropriate instruction and services, children with disabilities can make great academic progress and strive toward grade-level general curriculum achievement. It is therefore very important that an IEP team carefully evaluate the unique needs of a particular child and create an IEP with appropriate goals and instruction methods to achieve those goals outlined while adhering to state academic content standards.