Standards-based IEPs: A New Opportunity for Collaboration

By Fritz Geissler, M.Ed.

It’s been a long day, and when you finally get home, you notice a huge, and growing puddle of water in front of your refrigerator.  Your air conditioner has stopped working, and your washing machine won’t drain.  Do you grab the screwdriver and wrench and get to work, or do you call someone who specializes in repairing appliances?

When it comes to appliances, the choice of calling for an expert makes much more sense (unless you know exactly what you are doing).  But what happens in schools?  When teachers aren’t certain about something in their classrooms, do they collaborate to plan or problem solve?

State and federal regulations require the input of at least one general education teacher at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting if the child is or may be participating in the general education environment.  However, general education teachers have reported low levels of satisfaction with IEP development (Hudson, Menlove, & Suter, 2001).  Some of the reasons for their dissatisfaction include:iep

  • Feeling like their input is not valued
  • IEPs that don’t relate to what students are learning in their classrooms
  • IEPs that don’t address what classroom teachers are teaching
  • IEP goals that seem unrealistic and vague

While time constraints contribute to a lack of collaboration, there is a definite need to improve collaboration between general and special educators in creating meaningful IEPs.

Standards-based IEPs present a necessity, and a new opportunity, for collaboration within schools.  Traditionally, IEPs have focused on student acquisition of basic academic, access, and/or functional skills with little relationship to specific academic areas or grade-level expectations.  In contrast, the process used to develop Standards-based IEPs is directly tied to the state’s content standards. Both the description of the student’s present level of performance and at least some of the annual IEP goals are aligned with and based on the state’s grade-level standards.  This creates an individualized program that is aimed at getting the student to a proficient level on the state standards (Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Education, 2011, p. 9).   

Standards-based IEPs are suggested as best practice for IEP development by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) in response to the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the 2007 federal assessment regulations under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The legislation emphasized access to the general education curriculum and addressed alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards.  In order to participate in the alternate assessments, students’ IEPs must include IEP goals that are based on the academic content standards for the grade/courses in which they are enrolled; and ensure that students being assessed have access to the curriculum and instruction for the grade in which they are enrolled (Commonwealth of VDOE, 2011, p. 6).  The Virginia Modified Achievement Standards Test (VMAST) is an online grade level alternate assessment for a small group of students with disabilities who are expected to learn grade level content, but may need additional time and instructional and assessment supports to do so.  One criterion for students who participate in VMAST is that they must have a Standards-based IEP.

The opportunity for collaboration between and among general education teachers, special education teachers, and/or content specialists exists in and around the content standards.  Typically, the general education teacher is the content specialist with knowledge of the “big ideas” and critical concepts, whereas the special education teacher is considered the learning and behavioral specialist with important information and insights about students with disabilities.  In order for students with disabilities to succeed in meeting the content standards, general and special education teachers must work together to determine which critical concepts (general education) need specialized instruction (general and special education) and what such specialized instruction will entail (special education).  Understanding the structure of the curriculum is critical to determining which concepts will need the most support and when those concepts will be used again in the spiraling curriculum.  The manner in which the student learns best is equally critical to designing effective instruction.

General and special education teachers need to draw on each other’s specializations to collaboratively write effective Standards-based IEPs.   By working together, both teachers have valuable input to align the IEP with the general curriculum.  Collaboratively, they can write clear goals tied to what is being taught in the general education classroom and plan how content and skills will be taught to meet student needs. 

Below are some questions for general and special educators to consider when writing Standards-based IEPs:

  • What does the student know and what can he/she do?
  • What are the critical curricular concepts that require specialized instruction?
  • What specialized instruction is most effective with the student?
  • How will we know that the student is progressing and that the instruction is effective?

By working together, general and special educators can meaningfully combine their areas of expertise to help ensure students receive the instruction they need to access and master the content they are required to learn.


Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Education. (2011). Guidance document: Standards-based Individualized Education Program (IEP). Retrieved from

 Hudson, P., Menlove, R., & Suter, D. (2001). A field of dreams: Increasing general education teacher participation in the IEP process. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 33(5), 28-33.