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  • Writer's pictureJeff N. Eckert

It's All About That Data

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

"If we have data, let's look at data If all we have are opinions, let's go with mine."

Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO —

Picture of classroom with students at desks and teacher standing in the front of the room.

One of the well established principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that Individual Education Plan (IEP) teams must afford parents the opportunity for meaningful input and participation in their child's IEP development and monitoring. However, many IEP teams focus so much on certain aspects of the IEP meeting, they miss the proverbial forest—the substance of the meeting—for the trees—the procedures of the meeting. By this, I mean they focus on making sure the IEP meeting notice is completed and parents are invited to the meeting (the procedures) but too often fail at providing timely and accurate data and explaining the data in an accessible and understandable manner (the substance) to parents at the meeting.

Under the IDEA, the forest that IEP teams should and must help parents navigate is the substantive data that drives the IEP development and monitoring process. Simply put, if the data is not valid and reliable, then the IEP itself is likely deficient and not appropriate to meet the student with a disability's needs. Without timely and accurate data, how can parents make informed decisions about whether they agree with the IEP team's recommended goals, services, and other critical areas of the IEP? Every IEP—from the initial one to the annual reviews—should and must start with comprehensive, data driven evaluations that assess the student for all areas of her or his suspected disability.

The IEP team's evaluators are the subject matter experts and should provide data to guide the IEP team (including parents) in their decision making. A good evaluation contains concise and specific recommendations for the IEP team (including parents) to discuss and consider whether to incorporate into the child's IEP. Then, on an annual basis the IEP team should and must collect quantifiable and observable data that provide baselines for the present levels of academic and functional performance. In other words, what can the student do or not do at given moment in time? The baseline data is the reference point the IEP team uses for measuring the student with a disability's progress toward her or his annual goals.

Picture of graph paper with a graph with ruler and pens nearby on top of desk.
“What gets measured gets improved.”

Data driven decisions are integral to developing an appropriate IEP for students with disabilities. The key to understanding the value of the IEP data is found by ensuring it measures the right things and makes sense so it can appropriately inform the team's decisions. For this reason, the IDEA requires an "individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results" to attend the IEP meeting. This means that the evaluator—school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, reading specialist, etc.—who completed the evaluation should and must attend the IEP meeting to review the evaluation with the team. A critical part of this requirement is that the evaluator "interprets the instructional implications of evaluation results" in an accessible and understandable manner for parents.

While parents are experts of their own children, the school psychologists, social workers, behavior specialists, etc. are the subject matter experts in their educational fields. Therefore, parents rely on their expertise and professional judgment when considering whether the IEP team's findings and recommendations are appropriate for their child. If the IEP team does not provide accurate data or does not properly interpret that data, the parents are at a disadvantage and, consequently, cannot make an informed decision about their child's IEP development and monitoring.

Too often, the evaluators read their evaluation verbatim, or word for word, and use technical jargon without adequate explanation. Most evaluators use standardized assessments which are norm-referenced (classroom teachers typically use criterion-referenced assessments which are measured in comparison to a set of objective standards or criteria). This means the assessment measures the student's knowledge or skills in comparison to the knowledge or skills of the "norm" group, typically other same-aged and same-grade students. However, as outlined below by the Standardized Scores chart, the data does not always convey the full implications of the evaluation results.

How do the assessment scores predict or reflect the student's skill deficits and the impact these deficits will have on her or his educational performance? Too often, IEP teams do not help parents to be truly informed members of the team by explaining the real world classroom implications of the data or they minimize the findings to avoid providing more substantive goals, services, accommodations, etc.

Chart of standardized scores with definition of standard scores, scale scores, and percentiles.

In an IEP, one of the most important sections is the present levels of academic achievement and performance. The IEP present levels are (or should be) derived from a variety of data sources such as formal evaluations, district or statewide assessments, classroom observations, and progress monitoring data toward IEP goals. There should be quantifiable data that is used to develop specific, measurable, and achievable annual goals for the IEP team that are closely identified the critical areas of the student's educational needs. The goals indicate to the IEP team which skill deficits they must explicitly teach through specially designed instruction and monitor progress (or lack thereof) during the annual IEP period. It is common sense that you cannot measure how far someone has gone—their progress—if you don't know where they started.

Unfortunately, IEP teams too often do not provide parents with quantifiable and measurable progress monitoring data that is specific to their child's individualized academic or functional goals, rather than merely a summation of the assessments the rest of the classroom is doing. This informational deficit is compounded when the IEP team's evaluators do not clearly explain to parents the standardized scores obtained in reference to the "norm" group and the implications that the evaluation's results or scores may have on the student's classroom and functional performance.

Keeping in mind the IDEA's overarching purpose is to develop and implement an IEP designed to meet student with disabilities' unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living, it is clear that valid and reliable data is a critical component of the IEP decision making process. Timely and accurate data enables IEP teams to capture when a student has mastered a goal and it is time to go to the next one in the scope and sequence of the curriculum or skillset. The data also signals to teams when a goal needs to be revised because it is no longer working or appropriate for the student.

As co-equal members of the IEP team, parents are entitled to their child's IEP data. Therefore, IEP teams should and must provide it to parents in a manner that is accessible and understandable to parents. Only then, can parents and students with disabilities be assured the IEP team has not missed seeing the forest for the trees.



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