Supreme Court raises the bar for students with disabilities

In last week’s Endrew F. v. Douglas Country School District case, the US Supreme Court determined that to meet its requirements under federal law, “a school must offer an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” What does this mean for your child’s IEP? To understand, we must look at the cases that came before this monumental decision.


The earlier standard on what satisfies the requirement of providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) came from the 1982 Rowley case, in which the Court said the educational program in a child’s IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” This standard was troublesome because it was vague. It essentially meant that a student with disabilities had to make some kind of benefit in order to move from one grade to the next.

The Endrew F. case arose in challenge to special education precedent in the 10th Circuit, which interpreted Rowley as establishing a “merely…more than de minimis” standard. In other words, any bit of progress could suffice to make an IEP adequate. A big part of the Endrew F. challenge stemmed from the comparison of students with disabilities being held to a “barely more than de minimis” standard of progress, while students without disabilities in mainstream classroom were held to grade-level standards.


So, what could the Endrew F. decision change about a child’s IEP? The details still need to be worked out, but there is some language from the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion that gives insight into their decision. “An IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress,” wrote the Court, “[a]nd the degree of progress contemplated by the IEP must be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

This implies a higher standard as compared to that from Rowley: the standard is no longer some progress, no matter how slight it might be, but rather appropriate progress given that particular student’s profile and abilities. The opinion compares the “individual circumstances” language to the definition of special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which already requires that “the unique needs of a child with a disability” be factored in during the creation of an IEP.

There is still no requirement that an IEP provide a student with disabilities the best program or services available. What improves from Endrew F. is the higher standard of progress that an IEP must provide for a student with disabilities, now taking into consideration what that student may achieve “in light of the child’s circumstances.” We must pay close attention to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals and other district and federal courts to see how they incorporate this new standard into their decisions, including determining who has the burden of proving appropriate progress.

To learn how to create an effective IEP, check out the Exceptional Lives IEP Guide: