In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE), school districts must develop individualized education programs (IEPs) that are reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate in light of his or her circumstances. To ensure that IEPs enable students to progress, special educators must ensure that student’s IEP include (a) present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP) statements for all of a students needs, (d) measurable annual goals that are ambitious and meaningful, and (d) monitor and analyze a a student’s progress using legitimate data.
A recent ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed the importance of conducting thorough assessments and measuring student progress in the post Endrew F. era. The case involved a school district’s appeal of a due process hearing in which the parent of a student with disabilities prevailed in their assertion that the school district had failed to provide their child a FAPE. Although the hearing does not set precedent and the court’s ruling only direct applies in Pennsylvania, the logic of the hearing officer’s and judge’s rulings provide useful information for teachers and school district administrators.
In Downingtown Area School District v. G.W. (2020), a young student, called G.W. by the hearing office and judge, was receiving special education services in the category of Autism. G.W. also had speech and language impairment and services in this area. He also displayed problem behaviors and had difficulties with social skills and academics. G.W. had been served in special education in the Downingtown School District since preschool and was in 8th grade during the 2016-2017 school year. In the 2017 IEP, several of G.W.’s goals, including the baselines and measurement criteria, were repeated from a previous IEP, despite G.W.’s progress stalling. The student’s parents filed for a due process hearing against the Downingtown school district asserting that G.W. had not made progress because the district had not provided a FAPE. They further alleged that the district had failed to (a) conduct an appropriate transition assessment, (b) change G.W.’s goals or programming despite his lack of progress, and (c) reevaluate him before developing a new IEP. The school district attorneys countered that G.W. had make progress, therefore, the Downingtown school district had provided him with a FAPE.
The hearing office, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), ruled that the Downingtown school district had failed to provide G.W. with an IEP that conferred a FAPE. In his final order, the Hearing Officer wrote the following regarding the school district’s shortfalls:
In this case, neither the goals nor the special education changed in substance after the Student did not make the progress expected in the 2016 IEP. Under the facts of this case, the District’s failure to reassess the Student’s goals or the Student’s special education, or both, or proposed evaluation constitutes a substantive denial of FAPE for which I will award compensatory education. Given the pervasiveness of the Student’s disabilities and the stagnation of the Student’s program, I award full days of compensatory education from February 9, 2017 to the end of the 2016-17 school year (p. 14).
When ruling on the transition assessment, the hearing officer wrote “the omission of a transition assessment-or a plan for a transition assessment-was inappropriate” (p. 14). Because the district had failed to conduct G.W.’s transition assessment, the hearing officer ordered the district to do so. The hearing officer also noted that repeated G.W.’s goals may have been permissible as long as the special services changed in response to his lack of progress and that “I rely on the IEP goals to set the measure of what amount of progress should be expected of the Student over the term of the IEP because there is no better evidence” (p. 15). With respect to the 2018-2018 programming, the Hearing Office found that “The District’s failure to collect necessary information leads to substantive denial of FAPE” (p. 15).
The school district appealed the hearing officer’s ruling to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In a decision announced on October 8, 2020, the court affirmed the judgement of the hearing officer regarding the school district’s denial of FAPE. The judge in the case cited the Endrew F.FAPE standard, that a student’s IEP must be reasonable calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate in light of his or her circumstances, in finding that G.W.’s IEP goals and services remained unchanged and the district had failed to reevaluate him despite his lack of progress.
What lessons do these two rulings have for school district administrators and teachers? First, and most obvious, is the need for special education teachers to collect legitimate data to monitor the progress of their students toward achieving their IEP goals. Second, we need to use this data to inform our programming. When the data indicates that a student is not making progress, we need to change something in the student’s instruction. The change may be made to the student’s IEP goals, IEP services, or both. Third, if a student is not making progress and his or her new IEP just includes repeated goals, that may be an indication that the student is not making progress signifying a possible denial of FAPE. If a student’s IEP goals are being repeated, be certain to consider changing or adding services to his or her IEP. And, as always, to continue to monitor the student’s progress by collecting and analyzing data on a student’s academic and functional progress.
Downingtown School District v. G.W., 120 LRP 30959, (E.D. PA 2020). The case may be downloaded at Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=9611566958268695985&q=downingtown+school+district+v.+G.W.&hl=en&as_sdt=6,41&as_vis=1