What is an IEP?
Page 1: Overview of High-Quality IEPs
Public school classrooms today are made up of diverse students with a wide variety of strengths and challenges. Among these students, of course, are those with disabilities. In 2016, approximately 13 percent of all public school students—more than 6 million—had disabilities that affected their learning. These students qualify for special education—individualized services and supports tailored to address their unique learning needs.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that receiving special education services does not mean that students with disabilities will spend their school day entirely in separate special education classrooms. In fact, quite the contrary. Of the 6.8 million students cited above, 92% spent at least some portion of the day in general education classrooms being taught by general education teachers, though often with the support of professionals that include special educators and related service providers.
In the sections below, we’ll overview the process of determining which students qualify for special education services, and how this qualification process initiates the creation of an individualized education program (IEP). An IEP is a written plan, developed collaboratively by school personnel and a student’s parents*, which outlines the student’s current level of development, her annual educational goals, special education services, accommodations, modifications, and related services, as well as a method for monitoring and reporting the student’s progress toward achieving her goals.
*Parents are defined in a number of ways and may include biological parents, stepparents, and adoptive parents. This includes anyone serving in place of a biological parent, such as other family members (e.g., grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins), guardians, foster parents, or court-appointed surrogate parents.
Listen as Larry Wexler provides more information about the purpose of the IEP (time: 1:40).
Larry Wexler, EdD
U.S. Department of Education
Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)
Director, Research to Practice Division
Eligibility for Special Education Services
For Your Information
To receive special education services, students must meet the criteria for one or more of the following federally defined disability categories:
- emotional disturbance
- hearing impairment
- intellectual disability
- multiple disabilities
- orthopedic impairment
- other health impairment
- specific learning disability
- speech or language impairment
- traumatic brain injury
- visual impairment (including blindness)
In some states, an additional category, developmental delay, can be used for children under the age of nine who are not meeting age-appropriate developmental milestones.
These federal categories guide how states define these disabilities in their laws and regulations.
To be eligible to receive special education services, students must first meet two criteria (sometimes referred to as the two-prong test):
- They must have one or more of a designated set of qualifying disabilities. For a list of these, review the box on the right.
- The disability or disabilities in question must adversely affect their educational performance.
Not all students with disabilities qualify for special education services. For example, a student’s orthopedic impairment might necessitate the use of a wheelchair but does not otherwise affect her academic performance. However, this same student might qualify for other types of supports or services, such as physical therapy or adaptations to the classroom environment.
Planning & Documenting Services
Once it has been determined that a student qualifies for special education, a blueprint or plan to specify and guide those services and supports is required. An individualized education program serves as that blueprint. A written overview of the educational program designed to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability, an IEP is like a contract in which school personnel agree with a student’s parents to provide a set of services and supports for the student throughout the upcoming year. Every facet of the student’s special education program is guided by the IEP and monitored throughout the IEP process. Though it does not guarantee student success, the IEP is a statement of the efforts that school personnel will undertake to give the student the best possible chance to succeed in the classroom.
The process of developing this vital document involves a series of formal steps, each with clear guidelines and a timeline for completion. This process, in turn, produces a written record, the IEP, that formalizes educational services and supports for each student.
Did You Know?
Infants and toddlers between the ages of birth to three have something similar to an IEP called an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).
On the following pages, we will discuss in detail each of the steps in the IEP development process, as well as the guidelines that educators use to complete those steps.
Legislation and Litigation
Both the IEP process and the resulting IEP document are described in legislation (laws) but are often clarified through litigation (lawsuits). Direct quotations from legislation and legal findings are included throughout this module to provide important context for the information on the following pages. For example, with regard to the issue of an IEP resembling a contract, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted:
An IEP, like a contract…embodies a binding commitment and provides notice to both parties as to what services will be provided to the student during the period covered by the IEP.
The terms below will be used frequently throughout this module. It should be noted that we have included user-friendly, rather than legal, definitions.
special education: Individualized education for children and youth with exceptional learning needs, provided at no cost to the student’s parents, that meets the unique academic and/or functional needs of the student.
related service: Any of a number of services and supports designed to help students with disabilities to further benefit from special education; may include services from professionals including occupational therapists (OT), physical therapists (PT), and speech-language pathologists (SLP) from a wide range of disciplines typically outside of education.
individualized education program (IEP): A written plan, developed collaboratively by school personnel and a student’s parents, which outlines the student’s current level of development, her annual learning goals, accommodations, modifications, and related services, as well as a method for monitoring the student’s progress toward achieving her goals.