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Aligning the IEP and Academic Content Standards to Improve Academic Achievement

Learn how stronger standards for academic content can support your child's achievement.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), it's essential that you understand how your state's "academic content standards" can be used to ensure strong academic achievement. 

Although you may never have heard academic content standards mentioned in an IEP meeting, there are some important reasons you should be familiar with them: 

  • First, as a student receiving special education services, your child is required by federal law to be provided the opportunity to access and progress in the general education curriculum, which is aligned with your state's academic content standards.   
  • Second, your child is also required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to participate in all large-scale assessments administered by your school district and state.  By definition these tests are designed to test proficiency in knowledge and skills that are determined by the state's academic standards.
  • Third, an increasing number of students are required to pass a "high-stakes" exam in order to graduate from high school with a standard diploma.  These exams also focus on a student's proficiency in relation to state standards.
  • Finally, the increased focus on school accountability - how schools are performing in educating all students - brought about by the No Child Left Behind Act, provides an opportunity to create new linkages between IEP components and state academic content standards. 

Given the strong linkage to state standards - both in terms of school accountability and student stakes - it seems only logical that there should be an equally strong relationship between the content of a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the academic content standards for a student's enrolled grade level.

Some states have begun to use this "standards-based" approach and have developed guidance for IEP teams. Many more have yet to begin to require a clear and meaningful alignment between IEPs and state content standards. Regardless of whether your state is promoting a standards-based approach to IEPs, you can begin to insist on a strong connection between IEP components and your state's academic content standards to improve your child's progress.  This article provides definitions and background to help you understand this important issue.

What are State Academic Content Standards?

State academic content standards specify what students are expected to know and be able to do. NCLB requires that state standards be coherent and rigorous, encouraging the teaching of advanced skills. Every state must have strong content standards for each of the following subjects and grades or grade clusters:

Reading: Grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10-12
Math: Grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10-12
Science: Elementary, middle school, and high school

Each state determines its own content standards. The content standards must be the same for all students - including students with disabilities. All students should have access to and be assessed on their enrolled-grade-level content standards. In a standards-based IEP process, IEP team members need to thoroughly understand and use state content standards to ensure that IEP components are aligned.

In a 2004 national survey, only seven states required that the IEPs of students with disabilities address state content standards and only 57 percent of special education teachers said they were "very" familiar with their state's academic content for the subjects they teach.

Source: Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In, Education Week 2004

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.