The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the key contract and plan for every student who receives special education services. But not all IEPs are created equal. Over the last decade, the IEP has been evolving. Some states now use a standards-based IEP, which is clearly linked to the grade-level curriculum and expectations for all students, per the state academic content standards. The standards serve as a framework for teaching and telling teachers what to teach but not how to teach it. Some states have complex standards for each grade level, while other states have less specific requirements. With the 2013–2014 introduction of Common Core Standards, most states will follow the same set of academic content standards for math and English language arts.

A standards-based approach to developing IEPs blends the best of special education and standards-based education. A standards-based IEP, when properly implemented, results in several benefits to the student, his or her parents and teachers, and to the school district. Below are some of the benefits of a standards-based IEP.

Benefits of Standards-Based IEPs

  1. The focus is positive. A standards-based IEP:

    • is built on the belief that a student with disabilities is capable of achieving grade-level proficiency if given appropriate instruction and supports;
    • addresses a broader, more meaningful set of academic skills and knowledge than a traditional IEP; and
    • ultimately prepares a student to earn a regular high school diploma and succeed after graduation.
  2. Standards-based IEPs raise the bar on expectations and achievement:

    • Parents and teachers have higher—but realistic—expectations of children with disabilities.
    • Students receive tailored instruction and accommodations to help them achieve in the general education curriculum at their enrolled grade level.
  3. Standards-based IEPs encourage collaboration and awareness among educators, parents, and schools. For example:

    • Special education teachers, general education teachers, and other IEP team members come to better understand their state’s academic content standards and will work together to support student learning.
    • Parents better understand what’s expected, according to state standards, of all students at their child’s grade level, how well their child is doing compared to the standards, and how to support their child’s learning at home.
    • Teachers will better understand what a student with disabilities needs to achieve grade-level standards.

Focus on Standards, Boost Success for Students with IEPsAs IEP teams focus more on their state academic content standards, there may be more consistency in IEP development throughout the school district and state. And states that adopt and implement Common Core might develop and share IEP best practices with other states. This will be a key factor in helping both raise expectations and achievement of students so they can achieve their potential at school.

For more detailed information on standards-based IEPs, read our standards-based IEPs advocacy brief.


Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.