IDEA in Practice

U.S. Department of Education Celebrates 40th Anniversary of IDEA

By Mary Beth Klotz

Volume 44 Issue 5

By Mary Beth Klotz

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of IDEA, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Related Services (OSERS) released a “Dear Colleague” letter with guidance that clarifies that students with disabilities must have IEPs that are aligned with state academic content standards for the grade in which they are enrolled. This alignment is intended to help ensure that students with disabilities receive high-quality instruction that prepares them for success in college and careers. The purpose of the guidance is to provide state and local educational agencies with information to assist them in meeting their obligations under IDEA; it does not impose any new requirements under the law. It reminds IEP teams that students with disabilities must have access to the general education curriculum and that the primary vehicle for providing a free and appropriate education is an appropriately developed IEP based on the individual needs of the child. Furthermore, an IEP must take into account a child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance and the impact of that child's disability on his or her involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. IEP goals must be aligned with grade-level content standards for all children with disabilities. Provisions are made for students performing significantly below grade level, however. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities may be measured against alternate academic achievement standards using alternate assessments. These alternate standards must relate to grade-level content, although their scope and complexity may take the form of introductory or prerequisite skills. In the instance where a child is performing significantly below grade level, but does not have a significant cognitive disability, the IEP team should determine annual goals that are ambitious and help close the achievement gap to move the student closer to meeting grade-level standards. Download a copy of the Dear Colleague letter on IEPs and grade-level standards from

In another Dear Colleague guidance letter (see: released on October 23, 2015, OSERS clarified the role that dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia can play in special education determinations and programming. The guidance was released in response to parental complaints that state and local education agencies are reluctant to use these specific terms. The guidance letter noted that nothing in IDEA prohibits the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents. And, regardless of whether a child had dyslexia or any other condition explicitly included in the definition of a specific learning disability, or has a condition not listed in the definition, the school district must conduct an evaluation in accordance with IDEA to determine whether that child meets the criteria for specific learning disability or any other disability. OSERS encouraged state education agencies to review their policies and procedures to ensure that they do not prohibit the use of these terms in special education procedures.

Another recent release in honor of IDEA's 40th anniversary is the new website, IDEAS That Work (, which offers evidence-based resources developed by six federally funded centers on effective IEPs, instructional practices, assessments, student engagement, school climate, home and school partnerships, and secondary transition. The materials are organized topically for teachers and parents. One example of content on the new website is a series of resources from the IRIS Center to address disruptive and noncompliant behaviors. The series includes evidence-based instructional and intervention practices to support behavior and classroom management, teaching modules, practice guides, and research summaries.

An additional IDEA anniversary resource is the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Implementation Blueprint for Educators, from the National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS. The purpose of the two-part document is to guide leadership teams in the assessment, development, and execution of action plans in order to sustain culturally and contextually relevant multitiered practices and systems of support. Part I of the Blueprint deals with foundational content such as PBIS guiding principles, terminology, major features, and system-wide implementation processes. Part II provides a self-assessment tool and actionplanning template for use by leadership teams to regularly assess the status of factors associated with systemic implementation of a PBIS framework. See:

View a recent interview with Michael Yudin, Assistant Secretary, OSERS, for a discussion about the IDEA guidance letters and a variety of resources for students with disabilities at

Mary Beth Klotz, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director, Educational Practice