IEP Process: Goals and Objectives

6 May

I suppose a lot of readers are getting rather bored and fatigued by this IEP series. Guess what? Writing these things is no picnic, either! Is it any wonder that case managers look for shortcuts while doing these things?

Goals and objectives are what are going to drive the students’ placement and services during this coming year. While a BIP is the most abused part of the IEP, the goals and objectives are among the most neglected. My youngest, Percy, just had his IEP and while the objectives are different, the criteria for mastery and method of evaluation are all exactly the same; 3/4 opportunities and teacher observation. All the way down. Most teachers simply mark in 75-80% all the way down for criteria. This pretty much renders the objectives as written in the IEP as useless. Because when progress reports come out, teachers are going to eyeball the objective’s progress and make it up as they go out of the air.

Let’s take a sample goal of increasing academic skills and the supporting objective of reading sight words. “Thomas will read 10 sight words.” The criterion is at 80% and method of evaluation is teacher observation/data collection.

What direction does this give Thomas’ teacher next year? All it says is that he will read 10 words with 80% accuracy. So does he master the objective the first time he reads 8 out of 10? And how is the teacher tracking this?

Let’s turn this ugly duckling around. Thomas is still going to read 10 words, but now the criteria for mastery is to read 8 of 10 words over 5 consecutive sessions. Now I have a much better idea of what mastery really looks like. And I’m going to evaluate progress using discrete trial data. Now when it comes times to teach this, I know discrete trial is the format of choice. My objective now has the components of a lesson plan.

How about a different goal: Thomas will remain on task for 20 minutes. His caseload manager will put in 80% and have “data collection/teacher observation” as the way to evaluate progress. That objective is all but useless. I have absolutely no way to tell whether he has mastered this or made progress or gotten worse. And there’s no hint of how to teach him to stay on task. The teacher is simply going to pull something out of their posterior in order to say he has mastered this by the end of the year. It is a joke.

If you are a parent, look at your child’s goals and objectives in their IEP. If they all have the same criteria and have the same method of evaluation, you are being sold a worthless bill of goods. If they all have a mastery criteria of 80% and nothing else, the goals are rubbish. “Teacher Observation” is shorthand for “pulling results out of my posterior.” “Data collection” is shorthand for “pulling a pencil out of my posterior and using it as a magic wand to make results appear by magic.” If you are a special education teacher and trying to skate by on this, you are wasting your time. It may seem easier to do this, but in the long run you are going to pay dearly. You can not teach from this, much less evaluate how your teaching is working. It’s better to have a few well-thought out objectives than a dozen haphazard ones.

So how can we redeem this objective? Certainly, staying on task and attending are worthy goals if a student has difficulty with this. Think. How long are they attending now? Chances are, you don’t really know. It varies, depending on the task. A student may attend for hours on the computer or video game, but not be able to remain on-task for 5 minutes for written seat work. So let’s concentrate on seat work. Okay, you’ve already improved your goal!

“Thomas will remain on-task during independent written seat work.” Now you know when to observe. Not during circle time or recess, but during those times he has to be sitting down and writing something. Now think some more. Is 20 minutes too long? For younger students, it might be. If he is having serious problems, 5 minutes might be more realistic. But we’re going to find out. How are you going to figure out how well he is doing now? You are are probably going to want to time him. Think again. Take a 5 minute session and divide it into 30 second intervals. During each 30 second interval, he is either sitting and writing or he is off-task. Track how many intervals he is on-task versus off-task. Let’s say he is off task for half of those intervals. You now have a good idea of how to write this goal. We can still use 80%, but we need to be more precise. Think about how you will get him from 50% to 80%.

“Thomas will remain on-task for 5 minutes with nonverbal prompts and cues.” The criteria will be 80% of intervals over 5 sessions and the evaluation method will be using interval data. Now when you revisit that IEP 3 or 4 months from now you not only know what to teach but have some idea of how you teach and measure it. Making mastery over several sessions gives a better indication of true mastery rather than a whim. If he does master this you can either extend the length of time or up the criteria from 80% to 90%.

Teaching special education involves a high level of sophistication and expertise. Some knowledge of data collection and precise teaching methods is crucial to writing meaningful goals and objectives.

Parents, much of this may seem like Greek to you. But if I present you with an Excel graph of your child’s progress, you will be able to see how your child is doing and anyone can see how quickly or slowly your child is getting it. Success is everyone’s goal, but monitoring and measuring it is the job of the teacher. That’s why the good folks in the county pay us what they do.

You also see why I don’t like vagueness. This is why we end up with these stupid tests and calls for accountability from the Feds, because of sloppiness that serves no one. The problem with these tests is that they do not measure ongoing progress. If they fail a test in 3rd grade, they will be tested next in 5th grade after 2 years and after being handed off to 2 different teachers. But at least the tests give some degree of accuracy at a given point in time. In special education, the process needs to be continuous with some degree accuracy. And those folks being pulled off the street with no training have no idea of how to do it.

Unfortunately, most parents do not have the level of expertise necessary to correct sloppy objectives, much less write good ones of their own. But what they can do is demand accountability. When mastery of previous goals is discussed, ask to see supporting data, such as data sheets and/or a graph. Better still, you might consider asking for these during progress report time. A teacher making stuff up will be forced to either fly right or they will have to make even more stuff up. And making up data is not as easy as it sounds. You will probably be classified as a “problem parent” and might not get a Christmas card from your child’s case manager. But you will end up with a better IEP.

As a teacher (or teacher wannabe) putting this extra thought and effort in the IEP today will help you teach better in the fall. You reap what you sow, and sowing garbage in the spring will yield more garbage in the fall. One other reason to put this level of work into your objectives is that all of them will comply with alternate assessment criteria. They are supposed to be well-defined and measurable. ALL of them need to be measurable and thinking about how to measure them will help write a better goal.

Writing IEPs is a difficult process. I’m not trying to make them more difficult as much as making them more meaningful. Right now, the way most objectives are written, they are rubbish and an absolute waste of time.


See the index to the entire series I have written on IEPs.

21 Responses to “IEP Process: Goals and Objectives”

  1. Anonymous May 8, 2006 at 8:57 am #

    Dick thank you for your efforts here. I’ve been glued to your blog waiting for each IEP ‘lesson’! As a parent I value this information, so I’m ready for my sons next IEP. You’ve been validating my concerns with how his teacher is writing his BIP and goals. My sons teacher is the sweetest, most caring woman. But her IEPs need help! You spell it out in a way that I understand. I swear I’m like a deer in a headlight at the IEP meetings! Reading all this from a teacher and a parent is a fantastic gift. Thank you again so much!
    Cumming, GA

  2. Dick May 8, 2006 at 1:26 pm #

    Thanks for commenting! It helps to know someone is reading this stuff, because I know it can get dry and boring…sort of like one of these meetings. But anyone who has suffered through these things knows that knowledge is power. Hopefully people are empowered by some of the stuff I write. It does help me to think and consider this over as I write my own and prepare to attend IEPs of my own kids.


  3. speddy May 23, 2006 at 2:17 pm #

    I have taught special education for thirty years (well, that will be completely true in about 18 more days.) I appreciate the work you have done on this site. I agree with your views on IEPs and on the nature of the job itself. At this point in my career I am more sure than ever that I don’t know all there is to know, that isn’t possible. I have approached this profession with the philosophy that the children are like puzzles and my job is to figure out how to help them or help them help themselves. I am finding this philosopy rare in the high stakes testing environment. It bothers me.
    So.. thanks for taking the time to write this…. it’s needed.

  4. Lynette August 23, 2006 at 8:06 pm #

    I, too, am a special education teacher. I have taught for eight years with the last six working with the preschool population. My students have varying disabilities including autism and total blindness. I am frustrated and overwhelmed by the extreme amount of paperwork that is required of me but I continue to do a great job of writing IEP’s. My goals and objectives are measurable and well defined. I collect data on every student and am proud of the accomplishments my students have made throughout the years. Please have respect for those teachers who do their job the right way. They are the ones who make the difference!

  5. Dick Dalton August 24, 2006 at 12:44 pm #

    I do try to let teachers who are doing a good job know that I think they are exceptional. I’ll never fprget a couple of years agao, I was visiting a middle school IEP, and the teacher pulled out some data sheets….OMG!! I nearly wet my pants! I let her know how impressed I was with the care she had taken with this student. And I try to encourage newer and younger teachers who show a positive attitude. Attitude is such a huge part of it. A body can learn the rest, but attitude is hard to teach.


  6. Leah November 3, 2006 at 8:48 pm #

    I love your comments regarding goals and objectives. I’m a sped. teacher and a mother of 4 – 2 of which are on the autism spectrum. As a teacher I have had a few “problem parents” who have really helped me learn the importance of data collection and appropriate goal writing. Even though I was extremely nervous when having to meet with parents with this attitude, I am grateful for what they have taught me. I feel that when I’m writing goals for my students, I’m fairly successful writing good goals that are attainable and measurable but when I’m sitting in the IEP meeting as a parent I’m speechless. We discuss goals and objectives in the meeting and they seem ok but then 9 weeks later when its progress report time I always find flaws. Major flaws like when data should be collected or how. Is there a good resource available to help with goal writing that would continue specific suggestions like written above?

  7. Dick Dalton November 7, 2006 at 7:50 am #

    Good question! I’m not sure I have ever seen a reference on how and when data should be collected. Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers by Alberto and Troutman has a lot on data collection, but it is not IEP specific.

    Anyone know of any guides out there?


  8. Kathleen November 12, 2006 at 12:36 pm #

    Do you have any sample forms used for tracking, sample IEP goals that are written the correct way? Are there any good books that you would reccomend for reading. I would appreciate it very much.
    Thanks Kathleen

  9. Natasha March 6, 2007 at 11:02 pm #

    I am so glad that I found this page! I am in my first year of teaching and I am very frustrated, there are so many things that I just feel so overwhelmed about…my IEPs are clearly written with measurable goals, but I keep trying to find ways to monitor the students progress better. I am working so hard and I love my job (most days), but I just really need some help coming up with data collection sheets that I can take to an IEP and show my parents. I want to be a great educator, and I want my students to go as far as they possibly can after high school! Thanks!

  10. Sam March 13, 2007 at 11:40 pm #

    I’m the parent of an adolescent with autism and I’m “grappling”
    with precisely the issues that you discuss in your article above.
    You’ve put to words what I have felt at a gut level for a while
    now. You are so right that parents like me find themselves in
    the incredible position of having to try and come up with goals
    & obj. on their own to “bring to the table”, but oftentimes we
    don’t really have that expertise. I guess I have to learn quickly! Please don’t stop writing. Trust me, you are heard, and

  11. L Ford March 18, 2007 at 11:09 pm #

    I am a special educator with a caseload of 27 students in an inclusive setting. My students are spread out over 5 classrooms. I appreciate your comments and do believe that better goals and objectives are needed. However, if I had to keep data sheets on all of my students, as well as writing quarterly progress reports, conducting annual reviews, testing and report writing for 3-year reevaluations, and coordinating testing procedures for our MCAS, then I would have no time for teaching. A better way to develop more effective IEPs is to lesson the paperwork so that dedicated teachers actually have the time to write thoughtful, appropriate IEPs. It’s midnight right now – I’m working on an IEP and was looking for some help writing a specific goal. Tomorrow I have MCAS testing and then 4 reevals due by April vacation. I do my very best to create high-quality IEPs with measureable goals and objectives. So do many of my colleagues. Please don’t lead parents to think that “poorly” written IEPs are solely the result of lazy or uneducated teachers. Teachers are some of the hardest working people I know – with the least respect. Parents are an integral part of the IEP development process. That’s why they MUST attend the annual TEAM meetings. In my district, parents rarely show up. Let’s give credit to the teachers who dedicate hours to perfecting the IEP. Please consider YOUR language when criticizing (and generalizing) the language of IEPs.

  12. Dick March 19, 2007 at 7:07 am #

    I’m writing as BOTH a parent and as an educator. I do understand the realities of the stupid paperwork load we all carry on our backs. It is not insignificant. Having said that, I’m trying to encourage teachers to write goals that have some use beyond simply going through the motions. You write an annual IEP in March, and September when you (or another teacher) looks at it again, it can be a real blue print for what to do. As it is, so much of it is simply an exercise in generating rubbish.


  13. Sam April 1, 2007 at 11:05 am #

    May I recommend a book or two to all of our hardworking teachers.
    We want you good folks to not just work hard, but also to work smart. Many of you probably are, but certainly not nearly all, in
    my view. You’ll find that the info in these books may actually free
    up more time for you in the classroom:

    1. “Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool In The
    Development Of Effective Instruction” by Dr. Robert F. Mager

    2. “Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives” by Barbara D.
    Bateman and Cynthia M. Herr

    These two books (particularly the first one) should be required reading for all special education teachers in our country.

  14. Kay Ponder April 9, 2007 at 11:22 am #

    I am a parent of a 15 year old male. He will be entering High School next year. The school will NOT use pull out classes. They stated it is part of the No Child Left Behind Laws. What IEP goals, accomodations should I make for notes/notebooks. He does not write legibally (ony prints), and does not take adequate, good notes. He does very well in Math and Science. What accomodations do I need to allow him some flexibilty in the classroom for moving around, not giving speeches, etc… Thank you!

  15. chris May 7, 2007 at 3:59 pm #

    thank you for posting this information! I will be entering the teaching profession, and I’ve always wondered if there is a way to really make IEP’s a valuable tool, and not just a piece of paper. If the IEP drives education of the student, then shouldn’t it be specific. Please reccomend some hints for data collection

  16. Crystal June 11, 2007 at 3:27 pm #

    Chris – I’ve always felt that when it comes to data collection, you have to do what works for YOU. If you try to do what someone else does, and it doesn’t work for you, then you won’t really do it. Which means, you won’t have any true data to reflect on. I personally keep a data binder on each student. The binder is broken down into different sections that correlate to the students IEP. I also have a section to put work samples (sort of a Before/After section). For example, any objectives I write for the student in the area of Math, will have a corresponding data sheet that will go into the Math section. I prefer to have a different data sheet for each objective. I typically use Word to create charts which allow me to fill in the information necessary to know exactly how the student performed. After several years of this, I have become quite good at finding ways to create data sheets that provide a lot of information, but are also not time consuming to complete. I complete the sheets as I work with the student, so there is no “back log” or paper work to do later. It also ensures the information documented is completely accurate. My parents enjoy being able to sit down and look through their childs’ data book to see their progress or areas where they are struggling. It is also a big help when it comes time to write progress reports or develop a new IEP. Several other teachers I work with have copied my idea and I have shared data sheets with them for basic academic skills. A few of them really liked it and kept doing it on their own…but others said it didn’t work for them or they didn’t like having a different binder for each student. All I can say is, it works for me and for my students! You have to find what works for you!

    Dick – There are better ways to correct a teachers IEP writing skills than to say that they are full of crap. Unfortunately, many schools teach student teachers to write their IEP’s in an ineffective manner. It doesn’t mean that they are “bad” teachers or full of crap – they simply need positive instruction in the area. Telling parents that their childs’ teacher is full of crap, is not exactly the way to help them establish a good working relationship. It merely gives the parents the feeling that they too can be disrespectful to the teacher. Who is that going to help? Certainly not the child they should be focused on.

  17. Dick June 11, 2007 at 10:26 pm #

    Crystal gives some dandy suggestions, some of which I’ve seen and some which I do. I use envelopes instead of notebooks as I can often keep the data sheets with the materials that way. And I train the paras to do a lot of the data collection, which is important for two reasons:

    First, it gives them some responsibility and shows confidence in their own ability (after they are trained of course).
    Second, it helps multiply my own efforts and I’m not doing all of it.

    Now as far as my language, I have sometimes admonished teachers that I know well enough and will call a crappy objective crappy. And then try to show them how to fix it up even to the point of rewriting the thing. Most of them seem to make improvements fairly quickly but not totally. Secondly, a parent needs to know what it is and most of them are in no mood for candy coating the truth.

    And Crystal, where is that you live where you have “student teachers” in the traditional sense? 90% of all the new folks we get have NEVER had any student teaching prior to stepping foot in special ed. They are learning “on the job” with a minimum of support and instruction. I would be all for some meaningful internship/student teaching experiences where the teacher wannabe can learn under someone with experience. But it is not happening around here in Georgia and has not for the better part of 11 years. So the teacher training pipeline for special ed. is crap.;-)

  18. Kelly July 19, 2007 at 9:01 pm #

    I understand your frustration with the goals, but let’s be perfectly honest here people. The IEP is not taught from. Some teachers read them and some don’t. They all know their students from day to day activities. If there are more than five students in your classroom, you are not taking a ton of data nor are you paying attention to what is on a piece of paper, especially if more than a couple of students are on IEPs. The best way to teach is to constantly assess students to monitor their progress. A good teacher is a good teacher. There is not one piece of paper in the world that is going to change that. With the large amount of students in classes – even special ed and inclusion classrooms, you are lucky that the teacher knows your kid’s name. Let’s face it, fight the good fight not against the dedicated professionals that put in way more hours than you realize, who are forming your child’s little brain matter 185 days a year, but focus on the administration and pressure them to decrease class size. Less students, less stress, more resources and increased attention to student needs.

  19. Dick July 20, 2007 at 6:40 pm #

    Sorry Kelly, but you’re wrong. Teachers that do not read the IEPs and do not use them for teaching are:
    a. violating the law and
    b. violating their professional code of conduct

    We’re responsible for providing regular progress reports home to parents which is also part of the legal responsibilities as outlined in IDEA. How do you report progress on something you don’t even bother reading?

    The IEP is required by law for individuals with disabilities. You have to do them. You can either make them into something meaningful or you can make them into just one more “piece of paper.” If you do the latter, you’re simply going through the motions and wasting everyone’s time. This is the sort of thing that pisses parents off: teachers insist that we all just trust them, while some teachers just insist on not following the law.

    If you are not assessing and monitoring progress on IEP goals developed by teachers with parent input, just what exactly are you assessing and monitoring? And just what sort of dedicated professional teaches my child and does not know his/her name?

    It’s stuff like this that gets my blood up. Do you know why? I hate all the regulations, paperwork crap and accountability crap like poison because it detracts from actually teaching. However, it is short-sighted thinking like this makes lawmakers, the administration and other people require MORE of it!! They require MORE accountability because there are so many people who consider the IEP “just a piece of paper.” So they make up MORE paperwork in order to show that we are doing our jobs. If everyone was writing meaningful IEP’s that they actually read and followed properly, we wouldn’t have half the bullshit that we do!

    Having written such an emotional screed, I will offer you this: I did write a recent article on the increasing the supply of teachers and one suggestion I give is to establish a pipeline for special education teachers to become administrators. Having a supportive administration is indeed crucial to the process. However, we have to do OUR jobs first. Otherwise our complaints just sound like a lot of whining.


  20. Christina August 27, 2007 at 2:35 am #

    I was surfing the net to find answers on how to make the IEP objectives more measureable when I stumbled on this website. I am frustrated with half of these comments. There are a substantial amount of teachers out there that are trying to educate kids with disabilities in the best way they know how. Many are always trying to improve their practice, but I find your comments disturbing. You basically bad mouthed more of half of those in the field with blanket statements and have discredited all their attempts with your callousness. I work in an SH class with 12 kids that have 12 goals each when they come to me from the middle school. It is nearly impossible to provide the necessary documentation on all 144 goals represented by these students on a regular basis…much less on making the raw data meaningful to parents, while trying to prepare lesson plans, attend countless IEP’s, attend workshops, manage aides, attend meetings, g-tube feed students, deal with the day-to-day struggles of major behavior problems, coordinating services with designated service providers, creating transition activites, changing diapers, dealing with an ocasional disgruntled parent, a mound of paperwork and attending to all the constant flow of disruptions. My class is understaffed and we constantly have subs in the room. You insulted me personally because you called my work crappy. I came seeking answers, and I found another person telling me what a lousy job I was doing without offering any suggestions for improvement. In the credential program they teach you to write measurable goals, but not how to track and measure and make the goals meaningful. Most special educators are learning as they go because a credential program alone could not prepare them for all the challenges they would face as SPED teachers. We constantly have to adjust our teaching methods to meet the needs of the each individual student’s physical and mental limitations. And every year we change our curriculum to meet needs of new students. So don’t bad-mouth those in the field because they don’t do one aspect of their job well. The turn over rates of new teachers is so high because we get so much criticism, not enough support, and an incredible work load without much compensation. Yes goals can be written better and tracked more efficiently, but the reality is no one is out there showing these teachers how to this job (I had an administrator ask if I was doing my job the right way because they had no clue how to evaluate my effectiveness). It is a lot of trial and error. Keeping all the kids safe is a higher priority than making pretty graphs of student progress. So before you discredit the entire profession, think about all that they are doing right. My parents would kill me if I had a graph for every goal because it would drag the meeting on forever and they just want to go home to their family.

  21. Dick August 27, 2007 at 12:22 pm #

    Actually, I did give suggestions and tried to take the reader through the development of a goal, step-by-step.

    I do what you do everyday and have been doing it successfully for the past 7 or so years. I developed professionally and adjusted my practices to reflect those best practices . not doing so is a violation of our own professional code of ethics.

    You don’t have to go over data and graphs at the IEP. Send them home ahead of time. Actually, try reading the entire series before passing judgment and getting offended.

    I’ll do an update of this post hopefully before the end of the year as I’d like to incorporate some of the suggestions and resources.


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