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.
The IDEA – Purpose and Outcomes
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)]
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
FAPE Standard Clarified
Specially Designed Instruction
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)]
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.
Modifications lower the performance standards and provide access to a simplified curriculum. When a student eligible for special education takes a general education class, has a different grading standard from his/her non-disabled peers, and passes the class with modifications, the student does not receive a regular graduation credit.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
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.
Evaluation vs. Assessment
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.
Frequency vs. Duration
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)]
Assist vs. Provide
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.]
Educational Placement vs. Location
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)]