Summary of Dear Colleague Letter-November 16, 2016, By Attorney Sharon Falen

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On November 16, 2015, the United States Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” in an effort to clarify for states and local educational agencies their obligations under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In summary, the Letter reminds school districts of the intention under which the Act was created, namely to ensure that every student with a disability receives meaningful access to an education on par with the state’s academic standards for all children. In other words, a student’s individualized education plan must be aligned with the statewide and districtwide “academic content standards” for the grade in which he or she is enrolled. This means that the IEP goals for students with disabilities should aim for progress within the same curriculum as that of non-disabled children.

The Letter noted that, as a rule of thumb, an IEP that focuses on ensuring that a child is involved in the general education curriculum will be aligned with the state’s standards. Nevertheless, schools must not lose sight of individualized decision-making in the IEP process. The Letter stressed that a child’s specific disability must always be “an essential consideration” in drafting annual goals. What needs to be determined is how the student will achieve success in higher education, careers, and independent living though services, supplementary aides, modifications, and other supports specific to that child’s disability. The Letter reminds districts that progress must be evaluated, and among the factors to consider are prior rates of growth and progress towards grade-level proficiency.

The Letter notes that a limited exception exists for students with significant cognitive disabilities; IEPs for these students may be measured against “alternative academic achievement standards.” For those students whose present levels of achievement fall significantly below the grade in which they are enrolled, goals should be “ambitions but achievable” in an effort to close the gap.

Finally, the Letter presents an example of how an IEP might be implemented effectively. It is important to note that this process is specific to each student and is data-driven. Specialized instruction should assist the students with IEPs in reaching levels of performance and knowledge expected at their grade level.

Read the Letter here

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About Micki Moran

Micki Moran is the founding partner of The Child and Family Law Center, Ltd. She dedicates her practice to providing legal assistance to children and families who are in need of representation in the areas of special education, disability law, juvenile and young adult criminal law, abuse and neglect, guardianship, and mental health issues. Micki's practice is founded on the principle that children and their families require and deserve excellent legal representation with a multidisciplinary approach that works with multiple systems of care and creates communities that support and improve the quality of all peoples' lives.
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