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OSERS Issues Special Education Guidance

K-12 Education Publications

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), part of the United States Department of Education, recently issued two Dear Colleague letters, one related to students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, and one related to aligning IEP goals with state academic standards. The first advised that these conditions can be considered as part of a student’s evaluation and included in the IEP when appropriate. The second emphasized the importance of high expectations and grade level curriculum alignment for students with disabilities.  

In the first letter, OSERS clarified that nothing in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) prohibits schools from considering a diagnosis of dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia, and that these conditions can fall under the definition of a specific learning disability. However, teams must look beyond such a diagnosis when considering eligibility: the team must use a variety of assessment tools and determine whether the student is not achieving adequately for the student’s age or grade level when provided appropriate instruction. A student’s IEP can use the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, when applicable, as one way to describe the student’s disability-related needs. Stakeholders had requested that OSERS provide a guide on accommodations, services, and supports appropriate for students with these conditions, but OSERS declined to do so, reiterating that each student’s IEP should be based on the student’s individual needs as opposed to disability category. The guidance does, however, provide links to resources that may be helpful in identifying such supports.

In the second letter, OSERS reiterated that IEP goals must be aligned with the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled. OSERS explained that access to the general education curriculum is required by both No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the IDEA. NCLB requires the state to apply the same academic content and achievement standards to all students, including those with disabilities. (While NCLB is likely to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act soon, we do not expect this requirement to change.) IDEA requires that a student’s IEP enable the student to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum and defines special education as adapting instruction to address the unique needs of the child “to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” 

OSERS went on to explain that the state standard should not, however, replace the IEP goal, which must be individualized based on the student’s present level of performance, disability-related needs, and prior rate of growth. This guidance is in line with guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, which requires IEP goals to reference and align with (but not be replaced by) the grade level New Illinois Learning Standards. Further, IEP goals should be ambitious but achievable; they are not required to raise the student to grade level within the year. Finally, OSERS recognized that for a small number of students with significant cognitive disabilities, performance should be measured against alternate academic achievement standards, which in Illinois are the Dynamic Learning Maps Essential Elements. 

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the IDEA, OSERS also launched a new website, IDEA’s That Work, Preparing children and youth with disabilities for success. The website offers additional resources for schools and families working with children with disabilities.