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A Tactics and Strategy Session

Pete & Pam Wright

Question: As a state LDA President, I coach parents about how to write Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLEP) for their children's IEPs. We tell parents that standard scores from evaluations and reevaluations should be included as present levels in the IEP.

Some schools resist. They insist on using subjective "teacher observations" instead of objective information from standardized tests for the present levels of achievement and performance. In my experience, teachers often "observe" a higher level of performance than tests show.

If parents disagree or find themselves in due process, does it matter if the IEP is based in objective "measurable facts" or subjective "teacher observations?"

four children at home

Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance

From Pete: It's great to hear that you are training parents how to write IEPs. In regard to your question about present levels, I wouldn't advise parents to fight a pitched battle alone on this issue.

If parents get a comprehensive evaluation by an evaluator in the private sector who has expertise in the child's disability, they will have data - facts that will go into the record (into evidence).

If the school insists on using subjective teacher observations, an independent observer (the hearing officer, for example) will conclude that the school is not interested in monitoring the child's educational progress. This is exactly the conclusion you want this person to draw.

From Pam: When Congress reauthorized the IDEA in 2004, they revised many of the requirements for IEPs.

After the law was reauthorized, IEPs must include "a statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance ..."

Present levels of academic achievement and functional performance require objective data from assessments.

IDEA also requires that IEPs include "a statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals ..." (See Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition , page 99 and Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition, page 161)

Ask your parents to read 10 Tips: How to Use IDEA 2004 to Improve Education for Children with Disabilities by Wayne Steedman, parent attorney.Wayne describes how to include research based methodology in the IEP and how ensure how that the IEP goals are specific, comprehensive -- and measurable. He also describe pitfalls to avoid, how to resolve disputes without a due process hearing - and what parents should do if they cannot resolve their dispute.

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Question: We usually suggest that parents consult with a private educational specialist to help them write meaningful goals and objectives for the IEP (for example, a reading specialist if the child has a reading problem). This specialist will usually avoid dictating that a specific program must be used but will write IEP goals and objectives that require a specific type of instructional method.

The consultant will also suggest what tools to use to measure educational progress - mastery of the IEP goals and objectives. Do you have additional thoughts on measuring progress and writing meaningful goals & objectives?

Role of the Private Educational Evalutor or Consultant

From Pete: I recommend that parents consult with an independent specialist who can help them develop good goals for the child's IEP.

School personnel often want IEP goals that track their curriculum
(e.g., a Brigance-related goal about ‘map reading skills’ for a 9th grade student who not does not have problems reading maps). The IEP team loses sight of the fact that this child is reading three, four, or even five years behind the peer group.

From Pam: IDEA 2004 includes some very good language that should be useful.

Measurable Annual Goals, Including Academic and Functional Goals

IDEA explains that the IEP must include "a statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to meet the child's needs that result from the child's disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum and meet each of the child's other educational needs that result from the child's disability."

For a child who has a learning disability and whose reading skills are two or three years below his peer group, he obviously needs intensive remediation in reading.

Question: Many IEPs do not provide individualized educational services that focus on teaching the child to read, write, or do math, but focus on accommodations and modifications. How do you recommend that parents handle this?

Accommodations & Modifications

From Pam: The question parents must ask is whether the child is being taught the skills he or she will need to be an independent, self sufficient member of society. Do accommodations and modifications lead to the acquisition of these essential skills? In most cases, the answer is "no."

This does not mean that we do not support accommodations, but they are not a substitute for specialized instruction that is designed to meet the child's unique needs.

From Pete: Should we read TO children and give them "talking books" to help them "master the curriculum?" Or, should we provide intensive remediation by a skilled teacher who will enable the child to learn these reading skills?

Private special education schools (like The New Community School in Virginia, Trident Academy in South Carolina, The Kildonan School in New York) accept children whose basic skills are several years behind and push these kids very hard. The staff focus on teaching basic reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling skills. In most cases, after two or three years of hard work, the children's basic skills are on grade level. At this point, the focus of the child's education shifts to subject matter content. These children thrive.

Impact of Low Expectations on Failure to Acquire Skills

In my experience, many public school teachers have low expectations for children with disabilities, feel sorry for them, and will not push the children to work hard.

The teachers do not have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach these basic skills. If children do not master basic skills, they are very unlikely to get a good job, earn a good living, and be independent, self-sufficient members of their community.

From Pete:

When children learn to read, they will be independent learners for life.

What is the story about the fish?

"Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day ... Teach a person how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime?"

Isn't this the same concept?

When I meet youngsters whose basic skills are delayed by several years, I think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

I was fortunate. My teachers told my parents that I was "borderline mentally retarded" and "emotionally disturbed." My parents did not accept these assessments. My parents knew I was having trouble learning to read. They got a comprehensive evaluation of me when I was seven years old. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADHD at that time.

After these diagnoses, my parents arranged for me to receive intensive, one-on-one Orton Gillingham remediation every day from Diana Hanbury King. My parents had to sacrifice to provide this, but they did it and never made me feel guilty about it.

Diana King insisted that I learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling skills. She had high expectations for me and conveyed these high expectations to my parents. Without Diana King, I would have been a smart, angry, school dropout with low self-esteem and minimal skills.


We tell parents to avoid asking for a specific program (Orton-Gillingham, for example), but instead give the district a selection of acceptable possibilities (i.e., Wilson Language, SPIRE, Orton, Project Read, etc.). This becomes a list of  "Whatever best suits the needs of the LEA."

We also arm our families with a list of tutors. In many cases, the school doesn't have anyone on staff who can implement the child's goals and objectives. This way, the child can begin to receive appropriate services right away. Any other thoughts on this?

Avoiding Methodology Disputes

From Pete: Excellent strategy! If the parent insists that the school use a specific method, this insures that the school will NEVER use this method, come hell or high water. If a particular method needs to be used, I have the outside expert make this recommendation, not the parent.

From Pam: This is the power of "school culture." Many school personnel believe that because parents are emotionally attached to their children, they cannot be knowledgeable about the educational services their children need.

According to a study of 5,000 school psychological evaluations, most school personnel believe that children's learning and behavior problems are due to family and child factors, and have absolutely nothing to do with inadequately trained teachers, improper curriculum, and over-crowded classrooms. Read article.

Question: We have no private day schools in our community. The nearest residential school is seven hours away. Parents are often reluctant to send their children so far away from home.

To deal with this issue, we teach parents to negotiate for school-paid private reading tutors for Extended School Year (ESY) and even during the school year itself.

Tutors & Academic Therapy

From Pete: For most families, getting one-on-one tutoring by a private tutor is a better option than sending the child away to a residential school. A good tutor will insure that the child receives the remediation he or she needs. This is less disruptive and less expensive than sending the child away from home, especially for younger children.

However, the tutoring must be intensive and of good quality. The tutors must be well trained. I see many tutors working with dyslexic children who are not well trained. This is a waste of valuable time. (Read Research-Based Reading Instruction: How to Find Qualified Tutors by Sue Whitney)

I needed to have tutoring every day (five days a week) for two years (and went to a residential program during one summer). The tutoring focused on basic reading, writing, spelling and math skills. Children benefit more from quality one on one tutoring than the boring, slow paced remedial classes in most self-contained and resource programs.

Most people still do not realize that individualized one-on-one tutoring (in lieu of placement a "special education classroom") is allowed and encouraged in IDEA.

When you read the Definitions of related services and supplementary services in Section 1401 (see pages 54 and 55 in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition , and pages 140-141 in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition), you will see that the statute permits tutoring.

Response to Intervention

From Pam:
When Congress reauthorized the IDEA in 2004, they encouraged school districts to abandon discrepancy models ("wait to fail"models) and adopt Response to Intervention models when evaluating students who may have specific learning disabilities.

Most school personnel (and parents) are confused about Response to Intervention (RTI) - what it means and how to implement it. If you are among the millions of confused providers and consumers, please read Understanding Responsiveness to Intervention in Learning Disabilities Determination. This short, excellent article was published by the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities.

Then go to our Response to Intervention page for more articles and free publications on this topic.

Question: Some large schools with over 1,000 students say they do not have any children who qualify for Extended School Year Services (ESY). How can this be true?

From Pete: You say "some large schools with over 1,000 students say that they don't have any children who qualify for ESY." How can this be true?

It isn't true!

Extended School Year Services (ESY)

Schools often fight huge battles to avoid providing ESY services. Many school staff don't seem to know what the law requires for Extended School Year services. The law requires that schools provide children with the educational services they need - not what is convenient for school administrators.

Children with learning disabilities need repetition - they don't get repetition when schools take long breaks - holiday breaks, fall breaks, spring breaks, summer breaks. The Reusch v. Fountain case posted on our website does a good job of explaining the standards and requirements for ESY. That case was decided in 1994 but many schools are still trying to get out of providing ESY.

Question: Most parents who are new to the IEP process really struggle to write Present Levels of Performance and do not know how to write appropriate IEP Goals & Objectives.

Could we damage a case by coaching parents in how to write Present Levels and IEP Goals and Objectives?

Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance

From Pete: As to "damaging " a case - your first objective must always be to get the help the child needs. Everything else is secondary.

From Pam: Remember - it is the school's responsibility to educate. In too many cases, the school isn't doing a good job. The No Child Left Behind Act required schools and school districts to report their progress or lack of progress publically - that transparency fueled much of the resistence to the law and led Congress to gut it when they reauthorized the law as the "Every Student Succeeds Act."

The Parent's Role

Parents need to think of their role as watchdogs. The IDEA ensures that parents have a say in all decisions that affect their child's education.

The IDEA 97 regulations described the parent's role:

"The parents of a child with a disability are expected to be equal participants along with school personnel, in developing, reviewing, and revising the IEP for their child. This is an active role in which the parents

* Provide critical information about their child’s abilities, interests, performance, and history,

* Participate in the discussion about the child’s need for special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, and

* Join with the other participants in deciding ... what services the agency will provide to the child and in what setting. "

IDEA 2004 says that in developing the IEP, the IEP team shall consider:

* the child's strengths
* the parent's concerns for enhancing the child's education
* the results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation
* the child's academic, developmental, and functional needs. (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition , page 103; Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd edition, page 164)

The law about advising the parents about the child's progress also changed in IDEA 2004.

Now the child's IEP must include

"a description of how the child's progress toward meeting the annual goals ... will be measured and when periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards, will be provided." (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition , page 99-100; Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd edition, page 161)

From Pete: The bottom line is that parents must learn how to write IEP goals and objectives and how to measure their child's progress objectively.

Be sure that your parents read our article, Tests and Measurements for the Parent, Educator, Advocate & Attorney. Parents need to learn how to chart and graph test scores. Charts of progress - or lack of progress - are powerful tools at IEP meetings.

And when the parents balk, and insist that you cannot expect them to learn how to use tests and measurements to monitor their child's progress (and many will), tell them the story about the fish.

To Top


This article contains references to the following articles:

10 Tips: How to Use IDEA 2004 to Improve Education for Children with Disabilities by Wayne Steedman.

The Blame Game: Are School and Learning Problems the Kids' Fault?

Research-Based Reading Instructi
on: How to Find Qualified Tutors

Reusch v. Fountain (ESY case)

Roadmap to IDEA 2004: IEPs, Highly Qualified Teachers & Research Based Instruction

Roadmap to IDEA 2004: What You Need to Know About IEPs & IEP Meetings

Tests and Measurements for the Parent, Educator, Advocate and Attorney

Understanding Responsiveness to Intervention in Learning Disabilities Determination

Working with Independent Evaluators and Educational Consultants

For more articles on the topics covered in this article, check the resources on these topics pages:

Tests to Measure Progress

Response to Intervention

Research Based Instruction

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Revised: 09/03/20

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