The 2004 update of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) made several significant changes to the Individualized Education Program (IEP), both in terms of who should participate and what should be included in this important process. Since it is the IEP that lays out the school’s commitment of special education and related services to be provided to eligible students, it is essential that parents of students with learning disabilities (LD) understand the changes.

In updating the IDEA Congress sought to reduce the complexity of the law, the number of required meetings, and the paperwork involved in providing special education and related services. These objectives help to explain some of the changes made to the IEP provisions. However, Congress in no way intended for these changes to compromise the role that parents play in the IEP process. In fact, under the updated IDEA, parents continue to be full and equal partners in the development of a student’s IEP. Accordingly, parent input must be regarded as both meaningful and unique, and IEP team discussions should promote parent participation.

Despite a number of new provisions designed to provide flexibility within the IEP process, it remains crucial that special education services are carefully and closely linked to a student’s goals – both academic and functional – and that the process be a collaborative effort focused on student need. On average, schools report spending $10,558 per year1 to educate a student with learning disabilities, 1.6 times the expenditure for a regular education student. Given this significant investment, parents should have high expectations for results.

IDEA 2004 EFFECTIVE DATE: Changes to the IEP process made by IDEA 2004 were effective July 1, 2005. The federal regulations for IDEA 2004 became effective October 13, 2006. State law and regulations can provide more than the IDEA requires. But if IDEA 2004 requires or permits something, and state law or regulation doesn’t affect it, the state must follow IDEA 2004.

Every eligible student must have an IEP in effect before special education and related services can be provided by the school, and the IEP must be reviewed and revised at least annually. For students who have undergone a first-time evaluation for special education eligibility, parents must consent to the student’s placement in special education before an IEP meeting can be held and an IEP for the student developed.

Factors for Consideration in Developing the IEP

The development of a student’s IEP has always been guided by the consideration of several important factors. These are:

  • The strengths of the child
  • The concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child
  • The results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation of the child

IDEA 2004 includes this additional consideration:

  • The academic, developmental, and functional needs of the child.

PARENT TIP: Provide a written statement to the IEP team of your concerns about your child’s academic, developmental, and functional needs.

A WORD ABOUT IEP FORMS: Most states and/or local school districts have developed IEP forms to help facilitate the process. These forms must contain all of the elements required by the IDEA and may also contain additional state and/or district level elements. Forms can limit flexibility and impede individualization – above all, the IEP must be tailored to the student’s unique educational needs.

There are several “special factors” that must also be considered when developing the IEP. While none of these factors are new additions, changes in wording have occurred.

  • For a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the team must consider the use of positive behavioral interventions, supports, and other strategies to address that behavior;
  • For a child with limited English proficiency, the team must consider the language needs of the child;
  • For a child who is blind or visually impaired, the team must consider instruction in Braille;
  • For a child who is deaf or hard of hearing, the team must consider language and communication needs;
  • For all children, the team must consider the need for assistive technology devices and services.

PARENT TIP: IEP teams must now consider whether your child needs assistive technology, instead of whether your child requires assistive technology – a change that creates a more expansive opportunity. Use of technology can facilitate access to the general education curriculum by allowing students with LD to bypass basic skills deficits.

IEP Contents

The IEP must contain several statements that describe the child’s performance and outline the special education and related services the school district will provide. There have been many important changes to these statements, as explained below.

Present Level of Performance.

The statement of the child’s present level of education performance has been revised to reflect the child’s academic achievement and functional performance, including how the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum.

This change makes it clear that all aspects of a child’s performance are important areas of development, including areas such as social and behavioral, and align with the additional consideration mentioned above. Addition of the word “education” to describe the curriculum establishes the expectation for grade-level performance in the regular education curriculum.

Measurable Annual Goals.

A statement of measurable annual goals must be included in the IEP, including academic and functional goals, designed to meet the child’s needs that result from the 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 disability.

Again, the need to include any goals necessary to address the functional needs of the child is emphasized, along with the expectation that the child will make progress in the regular education curriculum.

A major change in IDEA 2004 is the elimination of the requirement to include short-term objectives or benchmarks for each annual goal for all but a small group of students who take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards. (See box below.) Congress felt that this requirement contributed greatly to the paperwork burden and bore no relationship to the non-linear reality of a child’s development. However, this change was not intended to eliminate or lessen parental information or eliminate the need to break annual goals into instructional objectives.

PARENT TIP: Parents may continue to request that annual goals contain additional information about the interim points of achievement that will clearly indicate that the goal will be reached by year’s end. Nothing in IDEA 2004 prohibits the development of short-term objectives.

ALTERNATE ASSESSMENTS BASED ON ALTERNATE ACHIEVEMENT STANDARDS: Students who take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards have significant cognitive disabilities and are considered unable to attain grade-level achievement standards even with the very best instruction. Such assessments generally do not lead to a standard high school diploma. Out-of-grade-level assessments are considered alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards.

Reporting on a Child’s Progress.

The IEP must include a description of how the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals will be measured and when periodic reports will be provided on the progress toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, or concurrent with the issuance of report cards). IDEA 2004 eliminates two important requirements from this provision:

  • The requirement to advise parents of the extent to which progress is sufficient to enable the child to achieve the goals by the end of the year; and
  • The requirement that progress reports be provided at least as often as parents are informed of their non-disabled children’s progress.

PARENT TIP: Request that the school provide progress reports on your child’s IEP goals in coordination with regular school report cards, or more frequently if appropriate. Express the expectation that progress reports will indicate if your child’s interim progress is adequate to accomplish each IEP goal by year’s end.

Services Based on Peer-Reviewed Research.

The IEP must also include a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel. Services must be designed to enable the child to make progress in the general education curriculum and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities.

IDEA 2004 adds an important new provision that the IEP team’s choice of special education and related services be guided by peer-reviewed research whenever possible. In other words, instructional programs and other services should be supported by strong evidence of effectiveness. This is particularly important when determining instructional programs to address reading deficits, since there is a robust body of research showing the effectiveness of an array of reading programs.

PARENT TIP: Parents should ask about the availability of scientifically-based research to support any instructional program that is proposed, including evidence of effectiveness. This applies not only to instructional programs to address academic deficits, but also those selected to address behavioral or other deficits areas. Schools should be able to offer a variety of instructional approaches – not simply one approach that is given to all students with a particular deficit or disability.

Non-Participation in General Education.

An explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with non-disabled children in the regular class and other activities, is required in the IEP.

This provision is unchanged in IDEA 2004 and continues to require a justification for any decision to remove a child from the general education classroom. Students with learning disabilities must have access to the general education curriculum regardless of the instructional setting, i.e., resource room, self-contained classroom. In addition, students with learning disabilities must be provided the same opportunities to participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities as their peers without LD.

Accommodations for Assessments.

A statement is required in the IEP of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on state- and district-wide assessments, including assessments mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and whether the child will participate in the regular assessment or an alternate assessment.

IDEA 2004 eliminates the term “modifications” in relation to assessment because the term has become associated with changes that alter what the test measures. An accommodation, on the other hand, commonly means changes in format, response, setting, timing, or scheduling that don’t alter in any way what the test measures or the comparability of scores. States are required to develop guidelines on the accommodations allowed on state assessments.

Accommodations for classroom instruction and classroom tests may differ from accommodations allowed on state assessments. All accommodations and the type of instruction or testing for which they are intended should be included in the IEP.

As stated earlier, students with learning disabilities should be expected to participate in the regular assessments given to all students – either with or without appropriate accommodations. A decision to participate in an alternate assessment would indicate that the student is incapable of accessing grade-level curriculum and is, therefore, not a candidate for a regular high school diploma.

Parents may find that an accommodation their student has been using in classroom instruction and on classroom tests is not allowed by state guidelines during state assessments. In such cases, it might be wise to pursue the matter with state officials.

PARENT TIP: Make sure that decisions regarding the appropriate accommodations for state and district-wide assessments are made carefully and are based on your child’s individual needs, and not his disability category. Take time to understand the particular assessments that your child is expected to take, including the content, presentation, response format, and administration (setting and length). You should also fully understand the decisions that will be made regarding your child based on the assessment scores, such as grade promotion or graduation.

Description of Services.

The IEP must include the projected date for the beginning of the services and program modifications, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications. IDEA 2004 maintains this requirement, which is the school district’s commitment of resources to the student.

PARENT TIP: Unfortunately, there is sometimes a “disconnect” between the goals to be achieved through the special education and related services, and the frequency, location, and duration of the services your child is to be provided. Parents should be certain that the frequency of services is adequate to meet the student’s needs and will result in reaching the goals. Timely remediation of skill deficits, such as reading, is essential if students are expected to access the grade-level general education curriculum.

Transition Services.

Beginning not later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, and updated annually, the IEP should include appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills, and the transition services the child needs to reach those goals.

IDEA 2004 eliminates the requirement to begin consideration of a student’s transition service needs at 14 and adds a new requirement for measurable postsecondary goals. This requirement aligns more closely with the process for determining academic and functional goals and then delivering the special education and related services needed to meet those goals. The addition of appropriate transition assessments also helps clarify that transition planning should be based on, and driven by, data as well as the student’s interests.

Beginning not later than one year before the child reaches the age of minority (which is 18 years of age in most states), a statement must be included in the IEP that the child has been informed of his or her rights that will transfer on reaching the age of majority. IDEA 2004 maintains this provision. Schools may choose to deliver this notification earlier than one year prior.

The IEP Team

IDEA 2004 makes several significant changes to how and when IEP team members must participate. While designed to offer new flexibility and prevent undue loss of instructional time, several of these changes need to be viewed with great caution.

IEP Team Composition.

The IEP team is composed of:

  • The parents of the child
  • At least one regular education teacher of the child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment)
  • At least one special education teacher or, where appropriate, at least one special education provider
  • A representative of the school district who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction; is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and is knowledgeable about the availability of district resources.
  • An individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results (who may be one of the teachers or the district representative listed above)
  • Any individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel
  • When appropriate, the child

IDEA 2004 retains the IEP team composition. Participation by the regular education teacher continues to be an important aspect of the IEP development process, especially for students with learning disabilities, most of whom spend the majority of their instructional time in general education classrooms. The regular education teacher who serves on the IEP team should be teaching the student a core academic subject and should be the student’s teacher of record, i.e., the teacher who assigns the grades for the subject.

The regular education teacher, as a member of the IEP team, is required to participate in the development of the IEP, including determining appropriate behavioral interventions, supports, strategies, program modifications, and supplementary aids and services, as well as support for school personnel.

It is essential that the district representative be someone with the authority to commit the resources of the district so that parents are ensured that whatever services are stated in the IEP will actually be provided. In updating the IDEA, Congress noted that too often IEP meetings are conducted without a school representative, as called for, and that many disagreements between parents and schools that arise during IEP meetings could be resolved if such a member was present.

PARENT TIP: You should receive advance notice of the school personnel scheduled to attend your child’s IEP meeting. Use this information to be sure that the required members are going to be on hand. Express an expectation that members will be available for the entire meeting and communicate any concerns you have regarding those who are scheduled to attend prior to the meeting.

Exceptions to IEP Meeting Attendance.

IDEA 2004 provides two ways that team members can be excused from attending the IEP meeting, in whole or in part. They are:

  • If the member’s area of the curriculum or related services is not being modified or discussed in the meeting
  • If, when the member’s area of curriculum or related services is being discussed, the member submits written input to the parents and the team prior to the meeting

The parent must agree to either of these exceptions in writing.

Should parents elect to make use of these new “excusal” provisions, that decision should be made in advance of the meeting, with complete understanding and agreement. When utilizing the provision that allows a member to provide written input, parents should receive and review the input prior to consenting to excuse the member.

PARENT TIP: While both of these new “excusal” provisions are designed to reduce the burden posed by meeting attendance, it must be emphasized that IEP meetings involve the development of an appropriate education program for the student. Since schools should not develop the IEP in advance of the meeting, it would seem difficult to predetermine if a member’s area won’t be modified or discussed. And, since the process includes the exchange of new information and the sharing of members’expertise about the appropriate program for the student, it would seem equally difficult to know what input to provide in advance. Given the important roles played by everyone on the team, use of these new exceptions should be both cautious and infrequent. This is particularly important with regard to attendance by the student’s regular education teacher, who has both a breadth of responsibilities and a critical role as the team member most knowledgeable about the general education curriculum and environment.

Changing an IEP.

IDEA 2004 provides new ways that parents and schools can make changes to a student’s IEP. They are:

  • Once the annual IEP team meeting has taken place, schools and parents are allowed to amend or modify the IEP without holding another meeting of the full team.
  • The entire IEP need not be rewritten in order to incorporate such changes, however, parents may request a revised IEP with the changes incorporated.

PARENT TIP: While these new provisions seem logical on the surface, parents need to exercise caution regarding the extent to which their student’s IEP can be amended using this approach. Minor changes involving such things as accommodations can be easily addressed in this manner, but significant revisions such as changes in the services to be provided, the frequency of those services, how behavioral or disciplinary issues are addressed, should call for a full IEP team meeting.

When making IEP modifications without a team meeting, parents should make sure that the school representative who agrees to the change(s) is authorized to do so by the district. Parents should also ensure that they receive written documentation of the changes, including effective dates. All school personnel responsible for implementing the changes should also receive notification.

Meeting Alternatives.

IDEA 2004 allows and encourages the use of alternative ways to hold IEP team meetings, such as conference calls and video conferencing. Schools are also encouraged to consolidate discussions of multiple issues into one meeting when possible. This could include the consolidation of re-evaluation and IEP meetings, or meetings required under the student discipline provisions.

PARENT TIP: Meetings conducted via means other than face-to-face can jeopardize meaningful parental participation and hamper the sharing of information critical to making sound decisions on behalf of the student. For example, sharing and discussing student work samples would be difficult via a conference call. Remember that this new provision in no way negates the parent’s right to request an in-person meeting.

While meeting consolidation can frequently save time for both parents and school personnel, parents must be fully informed of all issues to be discussed and should feel comfortable requesting separate meetings if they are uncomfortable with a proposal for a multi-issue meeting.

Notice of Procedural Safeguards

In another move to reduce paperwork, IDEA 2004 revises the provision addressing the notice of procedural safeguards. Long a mainstay of the IEP meeting, the procedural safeguards notice is now required to be distributed to parents of IDEA-eligible students only one time per year. Schools can determine when they will satisfy the once-a-year requirement, and may choose to use the annual IEP meeting for that purpose. Parents can elect to receive the procedural safeguards notice by email.

PARENT TIP: While many parents will welcome the reduction in the number of times the procedural safeguards notice is provided, it is critical that parents have a current copy of the notice on hand at all times. The content of the notice, as required by IDEA 2004, has not changed, with the exception of one additional notice: Unless state law already sets a time limitation, procedural safeguards must now include any applicable statute of limitations period – now set at two years – for the filing of a request for due process hearing.

Moving to a New School District

IDEA 2004 adds important new provisions regarding children who transfer school districts. While slightly different depending on whether the move is within the same state or across states, school districts are now required to provide special education services that are comparable to those described in the previously held IEP until such time as a new IEP meeting is held and a new IEP is developed for the student.

To facilitate the provision of services, schools are also directed to promptly obtain the child’s records from the previous school, including the IEP and supporting documents related to the provision of special education and related services. Likewise, the previous school is directed to take reasonable steps to promptly respond to request for records from the new school.

PARENT TIP: Parents moving to a new school district should obtain a complete set of their student’s records for the new school to ensure uninterrupted services. Schools should provide special education records at very minimal or no cost to parents.


  1. Special Education Expenditures Project, Total Expenditures for Students with Disabilities, 1999-2000: Spending Variation by Disability, Report #5, June 2003.

Updated January 2010