Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Present Levels of Performance

When an IEP team is convened to discuss the program and services for a student with a disability, the school district is responsible for ensuring that a written document is created. An IEP is defined as "a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with [the IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A). There are specifically delineated portions of this "written statement" that make up required content for an IEP.

The first on the IDEA's list of required content is "present levels of performance;" often referred to by its acronym, "PLOP."

PLOP means:

"A statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including (aa) how the child's disability affects the child's involvement and progress in the general education curriculum; (bb) for preschool children, as appropriate, how the disability affects the child's participation in appropriate activities; and (cc) for children with disabilities who take alternative assessments aligned to alternative achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or shortterm objectives."

Present levels of academic achievement

Academic achievement refers to a child's performance in academic areas, including reading and language arts, math, science, and history or social studies. This refers to what your child knows and can do at the present time as related to the core academic subjects. PLOP in academic achievement should provide the team with information about what the child's skills are. How are the child's reading and math skills as compared to the general education curriculum standards? Did your child meet his / her previous goals related to academics? What level were those goals set at, and if your child did not meet the goals, what level did he/she reach? What does your child's report card say about their performance?

Present levels of functional performance

Functional performance refers to a child's skills and achivement in areas that are "not considered academic or related to a child's academic achievement." See Commentary, Federal Register, at page 46661. Functional skills include areas such as daily living activities, motor skills and communication. Because PLOP must address both academic and functional performance, the IEP team needs to consider all areas of need arising from the child's disability when developing PLOP, regardless of if these areas directly impact academic achievement. Consider factors such as your child's ability to communicate in the classroom and with peers, your child's motor skills needs, any difficulties with organization or work habits, how your child socializes, etc. Ask the teachers for input about how your child "functions" on a day to day basis as compared to other kids his/her age.

How the child's disability impacts involvement and progress in general education

The requirement that PLOP specifically address how the disability impacts involvement and progress in general education curriculum should be considered when developing both PLOP for academic performance and PLOP for functional performance. When considering a child's academic achievement, for example, it is important to compare this to what the child is expected to do / learn in order to make progress in general education curriculum. If your child's disability affects his / her reading skills to the extent that this impacts her progress towards general education curriculum standards, for example, this needs to be noted in the PLOP. In the areas of functional skills, any functional performance deficit that affects how the child can participate in the curriculum should be noted as such. Additionally, the IEP document should consider, as a whole, how the disability impacts involvement in general education. Does the child's disability require a specialized setting or specialized instruction that cannot be provided in general education? Does the child's disability require modifications to the general education curriculum? These are issues the team should be considering when developing PLOP.

Preschool children

There is nothing in the law that states that IEPs for preschool children do not have the same requirements for content as for other students. There is, however, a consideration in the requirement for PLOP regarding preschool children in terms of access to age appropriate activities. For preschool children, it may be the case that they are not yet being taught "general education curriculum," and there may not be specific curriculum standards that apply. Instead, there may be "readiness skills" and developmentally appropriate activities, designed to get the child ready for a Kindergarten program. The IDEA recognizes this, and requires that when appropriate, the IEP document include a statement of PLOP related to how the child's disability impacts his/her ability to be involved in age appropriate activities.

Alternative achievement standards

Prior to IDEA 2004, the IEP was required to include a statement of goals that includes objectives or benchmarks towards meeting those goals for all students with disabilities. IDEA 2004 removed this language under "goals" and instead included additional language under the provision for PLOP. Students who are assessed using "alternative measures" that are aligned to alternative achievement standards, rather than general education standards, require shortterm benchmarks in order to measure their progress towards goals. Although this is now included under PLOP, it will be fully discussed in the next blog post in this series, which addresses goals.

Importance of PLOP to the IEP process

A clear and accurate statement of a child's present levels of performance, both in academic and functional areas, is the foundation for establishing a good IEP. PLOP provides the team with a baseline from which to develop goals, consider necessary services, discuss appropriate specialized instruction, and ultimately develop a program that will meet the child's unique needs and provide educational benefit. If the PLOP is vague, inaccurate or incomplete, then the IEP will likely not address each of the child's unique needs arising from his/her disability.

A sufficient statement of the child's PLOP is also critical for meaningful parent participation. Without accurate and complete information about how a child is performing and functioning, it would be impossible for a parent to be fully informed and to meaningfully participate in discussions regarding the child's unique special education needs.

For example, in an Oregon case, the ALJ concluded that the school district denied FAPE to the student, based in part on the finding that the district repeatedly failed to report the student's current performance or issue reports that documented progress towards IEP goals. The ALJ noted that mere identification that the child had "ongoing educational difficulties" was not enough for a statement of PLOP, noting that the parent did not have enough information regarding how the PLOP was related to the child's IEP goals. The ALJ found fault with the district's "recycling" of PLOP from year to year without updating the information.
Ashland School District, 47 IDELR 82 (SEA OR 2007).

In a New Mexico case, an appeal officer found that the District had denied FAPE to a student because the parents were denied meaningful participation in the IEP process. The IEP documents failed to include a statement of the student's present levels of performance, particularly in the area of reading, and did not include adequate information to allow the parent to fully participate in the development of a program. Because the IEP lacked information about the student's PLOP, parent had an erroneous belief that he continued to require a restrictive placement in a separate facility to recieve adequate specialized instruction. Although the district "recommended" a less restrictive setting, it continued to place the child in the specialized program due to the parent's request. The judge noted that this placement was inappropriate, and that the parent only requested it because of the lack of information she was provided regarding her child's current academic performance.
Rio Rancho Pub. Schs., 40 IDELR 140 (SEA NM 2003).

How specific should PLOP be?

The statement of PLOP should be specific enough to clearly establish with sufficient detail what the child's particular needs are in each area. Vague statements are not sufficient to lay an adequate foundation for a good IEP. The child's levels of performance need to be clearly defined so that anyone reading the IEP and working with the child has sufficient information to be able to address those needs and measure progress.

For example, in a New York case, the state review officer determined that the school district's IEP was inappropriate because the document did not contain sufficient details regarding the child's present levels of performance and specific special education needs. The IEP in question stated that the child had "difficulties" in motor skills and functional communication, but did not identify any specific difficulties that arose for this child. The vagueness of the statement of PLOP meant that the goals were not designed to match the student's actual needs, and therefore there was not a sufficient "foundation" for development of an appropriate program.
In re Child with a Disability, 50 IDELR 236 (SEA NY 2008)

Where information is derived from

Information contained within a statement of PLOP may come from a variety of sources, such as progress reports from previous IEP goals, report cards demonstrating a student's academic achievement in the classroom, informal observations, data collection, formal evaluations, teacher input, etc. Remember those things that the District must "consider" when developing the IEP, as discussed in the previous post. The District should take into consideration a variety of sources of input to develop PLOP that accurately, completely and specifically identifies the child's strengths and weaknesses in each area.

Parent participation in development of PLOP

Parent participation is critical to the development of a procedurally and substantively appropriate IEP, and there is nothing to support an argument that parents should not participate in the development of PLOP. As discussed in the previous post, the "concerns of the parent" are a part of what must be considered when developing the IEP. If the parent concerns are relevant to what the child's current levels of performance and achievement are, it would be appropriate for these concerns to be considered when developing PLOP. On a logical basis, it would be irrational for the District not to include relevant and accurate information provided by the parent in relation to what the child currently knows and can do.

Parents should prepare for the IEP meeting by carefully considering for themselves what the child's PLOP are in areas related to academics and functional skills. Look over information you have been provided throughout the year from your child's teachers and service providers. Make sure you have copies of any statewide or standardized testing results, report cards, progress reports, and evaluations. Make a list of what you see as important performance and achievement information from this information, and use that as a "checklist" when discussing PLOP with the IEP team.

Finally, the discussion of a child's PLOP can be a good indicator of how the remainder of the IEP team meeting is going to go. If the District is not allowing parents to actively participate and provide input, or is not giving the parents sufficient information, during this part, that may be an indication that the District is not going to have a meaningful meeting that involves everyone and develops an appropriate program. Disagreements are certainly possible regarding what a child's actual levels of performance and achievement are, a meaningful discussion of those disagreements should take place. If the parent believes that the IEP document is not accurately describing a child's needs and PLOP, it is likely that the parent also won't believe the IEP is designed to meet the child's needs. Ultimately, everyone needs to be proactive, information needs to be fully shared, and sufficient details need to be provided so that the PLOP really does lay the foundation for an appropriate program.

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