In any conversation it is important that the parties share a common vocabulary. Sometimes the common terms used in special education are misunderstood. Below are some commonly used special education terms with their accompanying definitions to help ensure effective communication.
According to Arizona State Board of Education rules, “accommodations means the provisions made to allow a student to access the general education curriculum and demonstrate learning. Accommodations do not substantially change the instructional level, content or performance criteria, but are made in order to provide a student equal access to learning and equal opportunity to demonstrate what is known. Accommodations shall not alter the content of the curriculum or a test, or provide inappropriate assistance to the student within the context of the test.” [A.A.C. R7-2-401(B)(1)]
The IDEA and its implementing regulations obligate schools to make a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available to students with disabilities, which means that the eligible student is entitled to special education and related services that are provided in conformity with an IEP. [20 U.S.C. § 1401(9); 34 C.F.R. § 300.17(d)] While the IDEA regulations under 34 C.F.R. § 300.320(a)(6)(i) only require individual accommodations within the content of an IEP when necessary to measure a student’s performance on state and district-wide assessments, the United States Department of Education/Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has offered pertinent policy guidance with regards to accommodations. “[F]or students found eligible for services under the IDEA, any accommodations deemed necessary for the student to receive a [FAPE] must be included on the child’s [IEP].” [Letter to Wilson, 43 IDLER 165 (OSEP 2004)]
Accommodations ensure equal access. When a student eligible for special education takes a general education class, has the same grading standard as non-disabled peers, and passes the class with accommodations, the student receives a regular graduation credit.
Assist vs. Provide
The regulations that implement the IDEA state that “paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and supervised” can be used “to assist in the provision of special education and related services under [the IDEA] to children with disabilities.” [34 C.F.R. § 300.156(b)(2)(iii)] The crux of the matter is the meaning of the word assist. The United States Department of Education/Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) explains that “this provision should not be construed to permit or encourage the use of paraprofessionals as a replacement for teachers or related service providers who meet State qualification standards.” [Analysis of Comments and Changes, Subpart B – State Eligibility, Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 156, p. 46612 (August 14, 2006)] Clearly, this means that any assistant cannot be solely responsible for the provision of special education instruction and services, cannot be used as a replacement for a special education teacher, cannot be directly responsible for providing special education instruction and services, and any provision of special education can occur only under the supervision of special education personnel. [Id.]
The question then to be answered is when does assistance cross the line from assisting in the provision of special education to providing special education and related services? Although the specific language of the IDEA does not directly answer this question, OSEP again provides some guidance in this regard: “The [IDEA] makes clear that the use of paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and supervised must be contingent on State law, regulation, and written policy giving States the option of determining whether paraprofessionals and assistants can be used to assist in the provision of special education and related services under Part B of the Act, and, if so, to what extent their use would be permissible. However, it is critical that States that use paraprofessionals and assistants to assist in providing special education and related services to children with disabilities do so in a manner that is consistent with the rights of children with disabilities to [a] FAPE under Part B of the Act.” [Id.]
Evaluation vs. Assessment
Although the terms assessment and evaluation are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. Evaluation is a process that begins with a review of existing data and ends with a determination of eligibility. [See 34 C.F.R. § 300.305(a) and A.A.C. R7-2-401(E)(3)] Evaluation is defined in the IDEA regulations as procedures that are used to determine whether a student has a disability and, if so, the nature and extent of his/her need for special education and related services. [34 C.F.R. § 300.15] The Commentary to the IDEA regulations echoes this by stating that an evaluation under the IDEA refers to the process for determining eligibility for special education and related services. [34 C.F.R. Part 300, Analysis of Comments and Changes, Subpart D–Evaluation, Eligibility, IEP, Educational Placement, Federal Register, Vol.71, No. 156, p. 46639 (August 2006)] Additionally, the IDEA regulations specify that evaluations may, among other things, be used to determine whether additions or modifications to a child’s special education and related services are needed. [34 C.F.R. § 300.305(a)(2)(iv)]
Assessment focuses on teaching and learning, and provides information for improving learning and instruction. Assessment information is used by teachers to make changes to the educational environment, and assessment is shared with students to help them improve their learning.
An example regarding independent educational evaluations (IEEs) points out the difference between what might be considered an evaluation and what might be considered an assessment by analogy. The purpose of the appraisal performed becomes critical in determining whether parents are entitled to an independent educational evaluation (IEE) when they disagree with the results of that appraisal. If the purpose of the appraisal is to determine the presence or absence of a disability or to evaluate the nature or extent of a student’s need for special education and related services, it's considered an evaluation and the parent would be entitled to an IEE if they disagreed with the results of that evaluation. If, on the other hand, an appraisal is carried out to inform the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance and/or to develop measurable postsecondary goals in the IEP (and does not result in an evaluation), the parent would not be entitled to an IEE.
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
“FAPE means special education and related services that are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge; meet the standards of the [State]; include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education; and are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP).” [34 C.F.R. § 300.17]
FAPE Standard Clarified
In March 2017 the US Supreme Court, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, clarified the FAPE standard and ruled unanimously that IEPs must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress in light of the child's circumstances." The Court rejected the petitioner's view that the IDEA requires schools to provide educational opportunities for children with disabilities that are "substantially equal to the opportunities afforded [to] children without disabilities." However, the Court also rejected the view that schools, in order to meet their obligations under the IDEA, only have to provide "merely more than de minimis" education program to a student with a disability. The Court ruled that the "de minimis" test is not demanding enough, and said cogently that "[i]t cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not."
Frequency vs. Duration
Among other things, each child’s IEP must include “a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services … that will be provided to enable the child to advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals, and to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum, and the projected date for the beginning of the services, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services. [34 C.F.R. § 300.320(a)(4) and (7)] To meet the requirement above that an IEP must include information on the frequency and the duration of a particular service, it is generally understood that frequency refers to how often a student will receive a service (the number of times each week), and duration refers to how long each session will last (the number of minutes/session) and the start and end dates of that service.
There is no requirement that the amount of services cannot vary from week to week if necessary, and there is nothing in the regulations that would bar such an arrangement; however, if the services are less than daily or weekly, then the IEP must specifically and clearly provide an explanation. [See Letter to Matthews, 55 IDELR 142 (United States Department of Education/Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) 2010)] Although the exact number of minutes of a special education service to be provided to a student does not have to be included in the IEP, the amount of services must be reasonably known to all parties involved in the development and implementation of the IEP. [JL v. Mercer Island School District. F 3d, 109 IDELR 48649 (9th Cir. 2009)] To this end, the amount of time for each service must be stated in the IEP with sufficient clarity to be understood by all persons involved in the development and implementation of the IEP. [Letter to Gregory, 17 IDELR 1180 (OSEP 1991)]
IDEA—Purpose and Outcomes
The purpose of the IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” [34 C.F.R. § 300.1(a)]
The regulations that implement the IDEA state that “the primary focus of the State’s monitoring activities must be on improving educational results and functional outcomes for all children with disabilities,” and also on ensuring that schools meet IDEA requirements, “with a particular emphasis on those requirements that are most closely related to improving educational results for children with disabilities.” [34 C.F.R. § 300.600(b)]
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to place students in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, schools must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their nondisabled peers; the placement should be in the school they would attend if not disabled, unless a student’s individualized education program (IEP) requires some other arrangement. This requires an individualized inquiry into the unique educational needs of each student with a disability in determining the possible range of aids and supports that are needed to facilitate the student’s placement in the regular educational environment before considering a more restrictive placement. [U.S. Department of Education, OSEP Memorandum 95-9 (November 23, 1994)]
Although there is a strong preference for educating a child in the regular classroom, this may not always be the LRE. For example, a student with a hearing impairment who communicates only with sign language may be unable to communicate easily or directly with hearing peers in the general education classroom/environment. In this case, a more restrictive environment on the continuum of possible placements, say a placement at a special school for the deaf, may actually be the LRE for this child.
“Modifications means substantial changes in what a student is expected to learn and to demonstrate. Changes may be made in the instructional level, the content or the performance criteria. Such changes are made to provide a student with meaningful and productive learning experiences, environments, and assessments based on individual needs and abilities.” [A.A.C. R7-2-401(B)(13)] Modifications lower the performance standards and provide access to a simplified curriculum.
Placement vs. Location
Placement decisions must be made by a group of persons, including the parents, and others knowledgeable about the child who understand the meaning of evaluation data and the placement options, and must base their decisions on the child’s IEP. [34 C.F.R. § 300.116] The IDEA regulations state that schools “must ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education and related services.” [34 C.F.R. § 300.115(a)] This continuum must include “instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions.” [Id. at subsection (b)(1)] Schools are required to “make provision for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) to be provided in conjunction with regular class placement.” [Id. at subsection (b)(2)]
The Commentary to the IDEA regulations explains: “Historically, we have referred to ‘placement’ as points along the continuum of placement options available for a child with a disability, and ‘location’ as the physical surrounding, such as the classroom, in which a child with a disability receives special education and related services. [34 C.F.R. Part 300, Analysis of Comments and Changes, Subpart B–State Eligibility, Federal Register, Vol.71, No. 156, p. 46588 (August 2006)]
“A public agency may have two or more equally appropriate locations that meet the child’s special education and related services needs and school administrators should have the flexibility to assign the child to a particular school or classroom, provided that determination is consistent with the decision of the group determining placement.” [Id.] Therefore, a placement decision is not the determination of a particular classroom within a school or the identification of a particular teacher or school personnel who will be providing services to the child. The United States Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides guidance in this regard by explaining that schools are permitted to make determinations about specific classrooms, teachers and support personnel as a matter of administrative concern and prerogative. [Letter to Wessels, 16 IDELR 735 (16 EHLR 735)(OSEP 1990)]
Specially Designed Instruction
The IDEA regulations define special education as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” [34 C.F.R. § 300.39(a)(1)] The regulation continues: “[s]pecially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of the eligible child . . . the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction.” Special education also means “the adjustment of the environmental factors, modification of the course of study and adaptation of teaching methods, materials and techniques to provide educationally for those children who are gifted or disabled to such an extent that they need specially designed instruction in order to receive educational benefit.” [A.R.S. § 15-761(31)]
Specially designed instruction, which by definition has to be different from the instruction provided to children without disabilities, does not equate with simply providing accommodations and academic support (assisting students with assignments). Specially designed instruction is a specialized type of instruction that cannot be accomplished by a child’s mere attendance in a special education resource classroom. The United States Department of Education/Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) “recognizes that classrooms across the country are changing as the field of special education responds to innovative practices and increasingly flexible methods of teaching. [However], [w]hile the needs of many learners can be met using such methods [best teaching practices or services that are part of a school’s regular education program], they do not replace the need of a child with a disability for unique, individualized instruction that responds to his or her disability and enables the child to meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” [Letter to Chambers, 59 IDELR 170 (OSEP 2012)]