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IDEA 2004 Close Up: Transition Planning

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act strengthens transition planning services for high school students with IEPs.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

When Congress updated the nation's special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), it sought to improve postsecondary results for students with disabilities by requiring public high schools to provide better transition planning.

Recognizing that the graduation rates for students with disabilities - including those with specific learning disabilities - continue to improve1, Congress stated that providing effective transition services to promote successful post-school education or employment becomes an important measure of a school's accountability for the post-secondary performance of its students. To strengthen transition planning, several new requirements have been added to the IDEA.

What are Transition Services?

Transition services are intended to be a coordinated set of activities, provided to the student by the school and sometimes other agencies, to promote a successful transition from high school to postsecondary education or employment, and independent living. IDEA 2004 adds a new requirement that transition services be based on the student's strengths, as well as their preferences and interests. The addition of "strengths" makes it clear that the development of transition goals should focus on and build upon what the student can do - not focus entirely on what the student can't do.

Activities developed as part of transition services must be designed to be within a "results-oriented" process as opposed to the earlier requirement for "outcome-oriented," signaling a clear intent to ensure that the process includes activities designed to produce success for the individual. The process must focus on improving the academic and functional achievement of the student to facilitate movement from school to post-school activities.

When Does Transition Planning Begin?

Previous requirements regarding the age at which transition planning should begin were somewhat ambiguous - some activities were to begin at age 14, and others at age 16. IDEA 04 has established one clear starting age requirement for the start of transition planning. IEP Teams must now include transition planning in the first IEP that will be in effect when the child turns 16 years of age (states might mandate an earlier date, but not a later one).

Many transition experts and advocates feel that age 16 is too late to start transition planning. IDEA 04's federal regulations make it clear that IEP Teams are free to begin transition planning at an earlier age if the team determines it appropriate to do so. Clearly, many students with learning disabilities can benefit from transition planning activities that begin in middle school.

As full and equal members of the IEP team, parents should feel comfortable suggesting that transition planning activities begin earlier than age 16. Such early activities can include training in self-advocacy skills. Such skills have been found to play a critical role in the post-school success of students with disabilities, yet a recent study2 found that only 3 percent of secondary students with disabilities who participate in general education academic classes have been provided with self-advocacy training.

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.