April 24, 2017

Since 1975, all children with disabilities have been legally protected with the right to access a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, formerly called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act). Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals have been presented with cases to further define these rights.

On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court modified the standard for FAPE in special education for the first time since Rowley. In Endrew v. Douglas County School District RE-1, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that in order to meet its obligations under IDEA, a public school must develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is “reasonably calculated” to make progress and must align to a student’s individual “circumstances.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. This standard is more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”

So what does this mean for speech-language pathologists working in the school setting?

The ruling doesn’t mean that all students in special education must attend a private school to have their needs met, or that every student must now have hours of speech/language therapy a week.

It really boils down to individualization.

An IEP by definition should be individualized, but sometimes teams will carry over information and goals from year to year. The IEP document is often considered a paperwork hoop to jump through, and teams would rather put their focus on providing services than completing paperwork. However, now more than ever, it is critical to write a comprehensive IEP for a student. It is what drives a student’s special education programming as well as identifies the supports needed to access general education curriculum.

The most important thing you can do for your students each year is to obtain an updated, comprehensive profile of their current strengths and needs and document this in the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP).

Once the PLAAFP is developed, goals, service times, and accommodations/modifications are a direct connection to the individualized needs identified by the team for the student. To ensure your district is in compliance with the Endrew ruling, your team needs to focus on having current and concrete data to back programming recommendations outlined in the IEP.

Dr. James Driscoll, who has worked in administration (both as a general education principal and special education director) for Mesa Public Schools, the largest school district in Arizona, has this to say:

We are in a new era of school accountability and there is an increased focus on holding public schools accountable. Nowhere is that more evident than in the special education arena which is taking place in meetings in school buildings across the country. Parents are becoming more savvy and knowledgeable of their rights, and with this knowledge, they are asking questions of school staff in regards to the development of their student’s IEPs and the delivery of services that these plans outline for them. As educators, we need to make decisions that are based not only on our observations but more importantly on concrete data. Our decisions cannot be made in isolation or in the absence of data; rather, these decisions need to be made from reliable/multiple data sources. Lastly, other IEP team members (i.e. advocates and parents) must be able to come to the same decisions as the school-based team based on the data presented.

This is where SLP Toolkit can help. The tools in SLP Toolkit give you consistent assessments that compliment your clinical judgment when determining communication present levels (strengths and needs beyond just “Johnny is a nice boy with a language impairment.”). Knowing this information then assists teams in making data-driven decisions regarding IEP goals and/or accommodations that can later be upheld in court.

Finally, how does an SLP define “appropriate progress” on IEP goals?

As SLPs, we must see an upward slope of progress when working with students. Our session data is what drives our decisions in future treatment and defines if what we are doing with a student is effective or not. Sometimes the data we collect is on underlying skills that lead up to an annual IEP goal, so if data is not carefully analyzed, “appropriate progress” can be tricky to define.

With the criterion-referenced tests and rubrics built into SLP Toolkit, an SLP is able to quickly select progress monitoring tools that provide accurate baseline data. These same tools are later used to efficiently monitor progress over the course of the IEP using a consistent measure.

The Endrew case should not be feared; rather, it supports best practice in special education. Students should not have the same PLAAFP and/or IEP goals from year to year. All students have a right to access their curriculum. Truly individualized IEPs ensure this right.