To The Point Blog

Developing “Appropriately Ambitious” IEPs for Students with Disabilities

Apr 10, 2017


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers states federal money to help educate students with disabilities. As part of IDEA, school officials, working together with parents and teachers, are required to develop individualized education programs (IEPs) for students. An IEP is the means by which special education and related services are tailored to the unique needs of a student with disabilities. An IEP is sufficient if it establishes a plan that is reasonably calculated to enable a student to receive educational benefits – a recent 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court clarified what reasonable and appropriate means.

Endrew v. Douglas County School District

Endrew v. Douglas County School District involved a student with autism. The student’s IEP largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from year to year, indicating that he was failing to make meaningful progress. Dissatisfied, the student’s parents challenged the IEP in court. After several lower court proceedings, the case found its way to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit held that the student’s IEP was sufficient because, among other things, it provided for more than a “de minimis” educational benefit. In other words, the Tenth Circuit held that IDEA set a low bar for IEPs, and that some educational benefit was sufficient.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, finding that IDEA requires more, and that IEPs should be “appropriately ambitious” and set forth “challenging objectives.” The Court even pointed out that students offered an education aiming for merely more than “de minimis” progress from year to year “can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

The Supreme Court distinguished between IEPs for students who are fully integrated into the traditional classroom and those who are not. If the student is fully integrated into the traditional classroom, an IEP is sufficient if it enables the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade. However, in situations where the student is not fully integrated into the traditional classroom and is not able to achieve on grade level, the Court stated that the student’s IEP should be appropriately ambitious and set forth challenging objectives.

The rationale behind the Supreme Court’s reasoning is that advancement from grade to grade is “appropriately ambitious” for most children in the traditional classroom setting. But when that’s not possible, a child’s IEP still should aim for more than bare minimum progress. In effect, the Court’s decision clarifies what was already best practice in schools across the country: develop IEPs where the goals are reasonable yet challenging, and are acceptable to the student’s parents or guardians.

Practical Effects

For students who are not fully integrated into the traditional classroom and are not able to achieve on grade level, IEPs should do more than recycle IEPs from previous years. They should set forth challenging goals and objectives, and be uniquely developed for each student. In most circumstances, school officials and parents can come to an agreement regarding a child’s IEP before a legal dispute arises. However, by making sure that an IEP is appropriately ambitious in light of the student’s personal abilities, schools can avoid the situation Douglas County School District faced in this case. If you have questions concerning this ruling and how it affects your school, please contact the Education Law Team at Day Ketterer.

The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice for any purpose. This blog is not intended to present an exhaustive summary of all applicable laws, or to take the place of legal advice.  If you have any questions regarding the law, please contact us for assistance.