The IEP process is meant to be deliberate and equitable, and the individualized program plans that it generates are the means by which the educational concepts outlined in the law are guaranteed to each student and that student's family (Office of Special Education Programs [OSEP], 2000). The formation of an individualized program involves seven steps, beginning with pre-referral and ending with evaluation of a youngster's program. These steps are

  1. Pre-referral
  2. Referral
  3. Identification
  4. Eligibility
  5. Development of the IEP
  6. Implementation of the IEP
  7. Evaluation and reviews

Let's look at these seven steps in more detail to get a better understanding of what each means and how they form the IEP process.

Step 1: Pre-Referral

The IEP process is initiated through a series of pre-referral interventions. The interventions implemented vary depending on the kind of problem the student is exhibiting. The major purposes of this stage of the IEP process are to

  • Document and explain students' difficulties and challenges
  • Test the effectiveness of classroom accommodations and modifications
  • Assess the power of various instructional interventions
  • Monitor students' progress (NASBSE & ILIAD Project, 2002).

Pre-referral activities are employed to screen students before more formal identification procedures are implemented. In general, before any formal referral to special education is made, teachers and family members work together to see whether educational or behavioral difficulties can be resolved in the general education classroom. The assessments used during this step of the IEP process are intervention-based and are made in the student's general education class using direct measures of performance (McNamara & Hollinger, 2003). The point here is to avoid unnecessary assessments and placements in special education, which are costly in time; money, and resources. During this pre-referral period, teachers try different validated teaching approaches to determine whether faulty instruction is the source of the problem (Barnett et al., 2004). They also make basic accommodations to the instructional program and systematically differentiate instruction more intensively. General education teachers receive both assistance and consultation from specialists. Students whose learning remains challenged are referred to special education and the next step of the IEP process. Because IDEA '04 stresses the importance of this step, you will find a section about pre-referral ;n each of the chapters that follow.

Step 2: Referral

If pre-referral interventions are unsuccessful, an individual is referred for special education services. Referrals can come from many different sources. For infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, IDEA '04 stresses the importance of an activity it calls "child find," where those with disabilities are actively sought. In these cases, referrals can come from parents, a social service agency, public health nurses, day care professionals, or a doctor. Young children who are at risk of having disabilities because of improper prenatal care, low birth weight, accident or trauma during infancy, or child abuse are referred for special services. Also, those with visible indications of a disability (e.g., a missing arm or leg, facial differences resulting from Down syndrome) or other signals of significant developmental delay (e.g., an 18-month-old not walking independently or a three-year-old not talking) are usually identified early and receive early intervention services during infancy or their preschool years. Typically, the referral process begins sooner for children with severe disabilities, because their disabilities are obvious at birth or during infancy. As children grow older, other signs often trigger referrals. For example, a toddler who is not walking by age two and a preschooler not talking by age three are both candidates for early referrals. As children get older, reasons for referrals change as well. Students whose academic performance is significantly behind that of their classmates or who continually misbehave and disrupt the learning environment often draw the attention of their teachers.

Step 3: Identification

Assessment is one foundation of the planning process. The purpose of this step in the IEP process is to determine whether a youngster has a disability, whether special education is required, and what types of services are needed. Evaluations are conducted by multidisciplinary teams made up of professionals who have expertise in each area of concern. Each member helps to evaluate the student's unique strengths and needs. For example, if a language impairment is suspected, an SLP is a member of the team. If there may be a hearing problem, an audiologist participates, and so on. For students who are 16 years old or older, evaluation includes assessments related to the need for transition services.

Information can come from a broad range of sources, including the youngster's parents and family members. The professional who coordinates the identification process varies by state and district. In some states, the assessment team leader is a school psychologist, an educational diagnostician, or a psychometrician. In other states, a teacher from the student's school leads the team's efforts.

At this step, many different types of data are used to inform the team about the student's abilities. Medical history, information about social interactions at school and at home, adaptive behavior in the community, educational performance, and other relevant factors are considered. Evaluations include an array of assessment instruments and procedures. Information should be collected, perhaps from family members, about individuals' major life activities: performance at home, at school, in interpersonal relationships, and during leisure time. Formal tests—tests of intelligence, academic achievement, and acuity (e.g., vision and hearing)—are part of the information used to make decisions about students and their potential special education status. Tests about a student's learning style are often included to help identify accommodations that may be effective to support the individual's successful access to the general education curriculum. Less formal assessments (school observations of social behavior, examples of academic assignments, direct measurements of academic performance, and portfolio samples of classroom performance) are also important pieces of evidence for this step in the IEP process. One result of the evaluation step of the IEP process can be determination that the individual does not have a disability. In these instances, the IEP process is discontinued. For those individuals who do have disabilities, this phase of the process results in a baseline of performance that guides the development of the individualized program plan and later will help evaluate the program's effectiveness.

Step 4: Eligibility

The information from the assessment step is used to identify students who actually have a disability and qualify for special education services. For those students, the IEP committee then determines what components of the full range of special education and related services are needed so that an appropriate education can be planned for and ultimately delivered. The education of those students who do not meet the eligibility requirements remains the responsibility of general educators.

Step 5: Development of the IEP

After thorough completion of the pre-referral, referral, evaluation, and eligibility steps of the IEP process, it is time to develop the actual individualized program plan—an individualized family service plan (IFSP) for infants and toddlers or an IEP for preschoolers and schoolchildren and a transition component of the IEP for those students with disabilities who are 16 years or older. For those students who qualify for special education, the next step requires that parents and the IEP Team make decisions about appropriate education, services, and placement. The assessment results are used to help make these decisions. It is at this point that the IEP Team begins its work to outline the individualized education needed by the student of concern. Collectively, the team members—including parents and the individual (if appropriate)—now use the knowledge they have gained to identify resources needed for that student to access the general education curriculum, determine the appropriate goals for that individual, and then turn all of that knowledge into a good educational program for the student. Of course, goals must reflect having greater success with the general education curriculum or preparing for independence and a community presence later in life. Now is the time when the constellation of services and supports that become part of the student's appropriate education are determined.

Step 6: Implementation of the IEP

Once the IEP is developed, the student's services and individualized program begin. The IEP now lays out what constitutes an appropriate education for the student, the extent to which the student participates in the general education curriculum, the accommodations the student receives both for instruction and for testing, and the array of multidisciplinary services from related service providers that support the student's educational program. For students who are participating in a different curriculum or whose goals differ from those of the general education curriculum, the IEP has specified alternate assessment procedures as well.

Minor adjustments in students' goals or in the benchmarks that indicate their attainment do not signal a need for a new IEP or another IEP meeting. Services continue. However, major changes in goals, services, or placement do require parents to be notified in writing. Some changes, particularly if they involve a more restrictive placement, may necessitate a meeting of the IEP Team and the family. Most often, this situation arises when issues surrounding discipline are the reason for the change in placement or services. Later in this chapter you will learn more about behavioral intervention plans, which must be developed as part of students' IEPs when serious behavioral infractions (e.g., bringing guns or drugs to school, fighting, being "out of control") occur. You will also learn about the rules that must be followed when such infractions cause students' placements to be changed, even for a relatively short period of time. Even under these circumstances, however, educators and students are to persist in their progress toward attainment of the goals specified in the students' IEPs. Special services, as indicated in the IEP developed during Step 5, must continue.

Step 7: Evaluation and Reviews

IDEA '04 requires accountability for each IEP developed. In most states, students' IEPs are reviewed annually. Under an IDEA '04 pilot program, which is attempting to reduce paperwork and administrative burdens on educators, 15 states conduct these reviews every three years. The purpose of the IEP review meetings is to ensure that students are meeting their goals and making educational progress. Because accountability measures determine whether the student is making progress, educators are careful to describe expectations for tasks and skills the student needs to learn in terms that can be evaluated. Whether the IEP process is for an infant or toddler (an IFSP) or a schoolchild (an IEP and possibly a transition component), the expectation is that frequent assessments of the individual's performance will occur, even if major IEP reviews occur once a year or only every three years.

NCLB and IDEA '04 require that all students participate in annual state- or district-wide testing or in alternate assessments. Alternate assessments are made available to students learning English as their second language and to students with disabilities whose IEP goals focus less on accessing the general education curriculum and more on skills related to independence, life skills, and community presence. Most students with disabilities participate in these high-stakes testing situations with supports from accommodations like those they receive when they are accessing the general education curriculum (Bolt & Thurlow, 2004). For example, students who use enlarged print or braille to read classroom materials receive these accommodations in the testing situation as well. Remember that in addition to annual assessments, students with disabilities frequently receive less formal evaluations of their progress. Sometimes these assessments are even daily or weekly. The purpose of such measurements of progress is to guide instruction and be sure those interventions scheduled are effective.