IEP Spotlight: Dos and Don’ts of Annual Goals

Today, we continue a series of articles focused on the components of a great IEP. We previously posted about the importance of and tips for successful IEP implementation, progress monitoring, and the statement of PLAAFP. In this post, we will cover the annual statement of goals, which is another critical component of the IEP. Like the statement of PLAAFP, the statement of annual goals is an outcome determinative element of the IEP, meaning it can be the reason a hearing officer finds the district did or did not offer FAPE. Keep reading to understand what is required and how to ensure every IEP includes an effective and compliant statement of annual goals.

Understanding the IDEA’s requirements for the Annual Goals

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires all IEPs to include a statement of measurable goals. These goals, like all other components of the IEP, must be tailored to the student’s individual needs and abilities. Specifically, the IDEA mandates that every IEP must include a statement of measurable annual goals that are designed to meet the student’s needs (functional and academic) resulting from their disability to enable the student to (1) be involved and progress in the general education curriculum and (2) address the student’s other educational needs. Additionally, if the student is using an alternate curriculum and takes assessments aligned to alternate academic achievement standards, the IEP must include a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives aligned to the student’s alternate academic achievement standards. In fact, breaking annual goals into smaller benchmarks or objectives is a good practice for all students.

Practice Tips

DO write goals focused on an observable skill; DON’T use vague language

Just like the PLAAFP statement, the statement of annual goals should be specific and use clear, descriptive language. The IDEA requires that goals must be measurable, meaning that you can see whether the student demonstrates the targeted skill or knowledge.  Goals that start with “understand” or “know” are red flags. Instead, to be measurable, the goal should be written to allow the team to observe the student’s demonstration of that knowledge or understanding. For instance, using verbs like “identify,” “explain,” “read,” “solve,” “write,” or “begin work.”

DO write goals that are ambitious; DON’T write goals that are unachievable

Start from the PLAAFP, making sure the PLAAFP has the baseline for the specific skill in the goal. After the IEP team reviews the PLAAFP statement, relevant data, and the student’s past progress on goals, the IEP team must develop IEP goals that the student can reasonably be expected to accomplish within a 12-month period. The purpose of annual goals is to ensure that every child can access and make progress in the general education curriculum, but that does not mean that goals should necessarily be set to achieve at grade level. Goals should provide for progress that is reasonable in light of the student’s unique circumstances.

DO include the details; DON’T fail the “stranger test”

A good goal statement should pass the “stranger test.” The “stranger test” means that anyone looking at a student’s goals could implement them, assess progress, and determine whether progress is satisfactory. To help ensure that a goal passes the “stranger test,” the goal should include information about the circumstances under which the student will demonstrate the skill as well as how progress will be measured and what level of mastery is needed.

With respect to the circumstances, indicate details such as whether the student will demonstrate the skill in the general education class or during individual speech therapy sessions; with prompting (how much) or independently; using a new text or a familiar text. With respect to measurement, consider what the team will look at to judge the student’s performance, such as daily assignment notebook checks, weekly quizzes, a point sheet, or scores on a given assessment. And with respect to mastery, identify the level of accuracy (e.g. 80% accuracy or 3 out of 4 correct) and consistency (e.g. in 4 of 5 trials or for 3 consecutive weeks).

Putting it all together, you might have something like: “By [date], with access to a number line, Student will independently add and subtract three-digit numbers with regrouping with 75% accuracy in 4 out of 5 attempts, as measured by weekly quizzes in the general education class.”

DO think critically; DON’T repeat goals

Generally, a student should not have the same goal from year to year. Following the three tips above can help avoid the repeated goal pitfall because repeated goals are often the result of goals that are too vague, too ambitious, or lack detail. For example, if the goal is to answer 3 of 4 comprehension questions correctly on a grade level text, that skill may continue to be applicable for a student for several years, but at higher levels of text complexity and/or independence. Specifying the text level, the type of comprehension question and response, and the level of independence will produce a more measurable and meaningful goal. Additionally, writing a goal that is too high for a student may result in the goal being repeated the following year because the student was unable to reach the goal the first year. In that case, ensure the goal is relevant and attainable, also consider if different teaching methods, services, or accommodations are needed for the student to be successful.

DO write goals targeting each area of need; DON’T include the whole curriculum

Goals should be written targeting each of a student’s areas of need identified in the evaluation/impact statement. Teams should focus on priority functional and academic skills for the student. While the IEP should address all areas of need, the goals do not have to encompass every aspect of the curriculum or every skill the student will learn. IEPs with too many goals can lead to implementation and progress monitoring failures, while not supporting the student in their greatest areas of need.

DO consider including benchmarks and objectives for all students

Benchmarks and objectives help keep track of the student’s progress and flag when it looks like a student is not going to master the goal by the next annual review. This foresight allows the team to adjust course and if needed, convene an ARD committee meeting to address the lack of progress. The use of benchmarks and objectives can also allow the team to breakdown broader goals into more concrete steps or components.

Setting specific and observable measurable goals promotes student growth and legal compliance – ensuring IEP teams are drafting IEPs your lawyer would be proud of.

Should you have any questions about this post or any other special education-related questions or for support in implementing any of these or any other special education tips, please reach out to our Special Education Team.