The Goal of Goals in IEPs
In preparing for meetings of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team, both parents and educators spend a great deal of time focused upon goals. Understanding the purpose and basis of goals can help all involved achieve this objective.
Federal law requires that IEP documents contain “measurable annual goals,” and directs that these goals should ameliorate the skill deficits a child has in accessing and progressing in the regular curriculum and in other educationally-related areas. 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(II). In order to determine what the child’s skill needs are, we must have excellent data on (1) the child’s present levels of achievement, and (2) the requirements of the regular education curriculum. In other words, if we don’t know where we are or where we are headed, our journey has little chance of success.
Once we know where our children are and where they need to be headed, we must write good, measurable, annual goals. A good goal follows the SMART goal model: Specific (including the action desired), Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Many IEP goals fail on the first and second prongs, specificity and measurability. “STUDENT will improve Braille reading” is neither specific nor measurable. Instead, “When engaged in one-on-one instruction with teacher of blind students, STUDENT will be able to independently (without reference materials, verbal prompts, or physical prompts) tactually identify Braille letters a through z, literary numbers 0 through 9, and Nemeth numbers 0 through 10 out of order with 95% accuracy, in five out of six consecutive weekly probes” provides all stakeholders with the information needed to administer and monitor this goal. Some goals involve a growth in independence of skill use, such as the ability to use screen reader technology independently. In these cases, a rubric which gives more points for action performed independently can be very useful. If a rubric is incorporated into a goal, please make certain that the rubric itself is attached to the IEP so that all know the basis upon which the goal progress is being measured.
Attainability is also important, but we must make certain we maintain high expectations of our children. This grade-leveled checklist provides excellent guidance on grade-appropriate expectations of progress in Braille literacy. The IEP team should strive to attain on-grade level skills as soon as is possible, regardless of additional disabilities or delayed language acquisition.
Some goals lack relevancy. The IEP team must understand that vision will never be a strength for our children, and our children will likely find more success utilizing their remaining senses. In general, visually tracking light is not nearly as relevant as engaging in meaningful communication, and usually through tactile means. I had a student with multiple and severe physical impairments, along with limited functional vision. For two years, her previous school had been trying to have her use eye gaze for Yes/No communication. For two years, they were unsuccessful. In one day, this student was able to understand and meaningfully utilize a tactile Yes/No board, despite her delayed and limited hand and arm control. An overemphasis on vision use stunted this student’s ability to communicate for far too long, and utilizing tactile tools quickly gave her a voice to express her likes and dislikes.
The final prong, being time-bound, is usually taken care of, given that IEP goals may extend for no longer than one year. However, goals may be shorter, especially if the team is uncertain about the child’s ability to learn a new skill set. Additionally, if a child can perform a skill but not efficiently, a focus on efficiency may be very appropriate. For example, “When eating in the cafeteria with same-age peers, STUDENT will open all containers (milk, fruit cup, chip bag, etc.) without assistance within two minutes of sitting down at the table in four out of five consecutive weekly probes.”
Once you have great IEP goals, the process is not over; it has just begun. The educator in charge of instructing skills and monitoring progress on each goal must do so. Progress on IEP goals must be reported at least as often as report cards are issued to all students (usually every six or nine weeks). However, consider asking for more regular progress reports. Regular assessments allow all IEP team members to assess the efficacy of the instruction and to make adjustments, as needed.
Also, be willing to adjust goals as necessary. If a student has achieved a goal early, write a new goal. If it becomes clear that a goal is no longer appropriate for the student, write a new goal. Goals are meant to serve the student, not the other way around.
 Doran, George, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham. "There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives." Management Review 70, no. 11 (November 1981).