The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled that an individualized educational program’s annual goals do not have to correspond one-to-one with a student’s specific, identified needs to provide a free, appropriate public education. (Tehachapi Unified Sch. Dist., 69 IDELR 241.) IEP goals are reviewed holistically to determine whether the IEP will address the educational needs resulting from a student’s disability. If a student’s educational needs can be met by an IEP, the student is not denied a FAPE merely because each need is not linked to a specific goal.
Student was eligible for special education and related services because she had autism. Multiple IEP meetings were convened in 2013 and 2014. In March 2013, Student’s IEP team determined that staying focused was her greatest need and developed annual goals in areas like following instructions, verbalizing, writing, reading, math, and social/emotional behavior. Student did not receive goals that specifically addressed maintaining attention and staying on task. Student filed for a due process hearing with OAH alleging, among other things, that District denied Student a FAPE by not including goals in Student’s IEP which specifically addressed maintaining attention and staying on task.
An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) disagreed with Student, finding that Student’s IEP goals were appropriate. The ALJ concluded that Student’s attention to task was adequately addressed by goals addressing Student’s ability to comply with directions, and with accommodations in the IEP like a visual schedule, giving on-task reminders, and provision of a one-to-one aide.
On appeal, the U.S. District Court upheld the ALJ’s ruling. The District Court relied in part on a decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (overseeing New York, Vermont, and Connecticut) which held that an IEP which does not specifically address goals and objectives toward a need, but which has goals which enable a student to make progress in the area of need, may be substantively sufficient under IDEA. L.O. ex rel. K.T. v. New York City Dep’t of Educ. (2d Cir. 2016) 822 F.3d 95, 118-19. The District Court found this persuasive, reasoning that IEP annual goals must meet a student’s needs, but that the IDEA does not require that the goals correspond one-to-one with specific, identified needs. Applying the recent Endrew F. decision (see our earlier Legal Alert, (2017) 137 S.Ct. 988), the District Court focused on whether the IEP was “reasonably calculated to enable [Student] to make progress appropriate in light of [her] circumstances.” The District Court concluded that Student’s IEP was reasonably calculated to enable appropriate progress, and that “[t]he precise form that a goal takes is a question of educational policy, and courts should not ‘substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.’” Citing Bd. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, (1982) 458 U.S. 176, 206.
In light of the recent Endrew F. decision, courts may begin to scrutinize more closely the contents of IEPs, including annual goals and objectives. IEP teams need to gather quantifiable baseline data regarding a student’s unique needs from which to develop robust, detailed and measurable goals for the child’s expected performance of each skill after a year’s time. Additionally, if a student’s annual IEP goals are the same or appear substantially similar year-to-year, that is a red flag and may indicate that the student is not receiving FAPE.