Good Skills Are More Important Than Good Grades

Published on June 6, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

I am so tired of hearing school staff tell parents of children with disabilities that everything is going well, simply because that child is being given good grades by the very staff who are claiming that the program is going well!

First, a little history lesson in special education law.

The IDEA requires that each child identified as eligible to receive special education and related services through an IEP be offered, each school year,  a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”).  What constitutes an “appropriate” program is usually where the disputes arise between parents of students with disabilities and their school districts.

School districts are required to provide special education programs that produce educational benefit for the children who receive them.

What is that benefit?  The legal standard is based on the interpretation of the Statute and case law, and therefore varies somewhat among the States and the Federal Circuits.  The question often boils down to what level of “educational benefit” has be be conferred in order for FAPE standards to be met.  Terms like “some benefit,” “significant learning,” and “meaningful educational benefit” appear in a number of cases in different parts of the country.  Many of those decisions begin their analysis of the law by looking at a 1982 United States Supreme Court case known in the special education legal community as Rowley, which articulated a standard for what constitutes an appropriate IEP.

In that case, involving a student who was hearing impaired and whose parents wanted a sign language interpreter assigned to her in school, the Court agreed with the school district that such a service was not required for this particular child to receive an appropriate program.   One of the reasons the Court so found was that Amy Rowley was receiving good grades and being promoted annually to the next grade.

And ever since, school districts have argued that good grades equal appropriate special education programs, a position which lacks both legal scrutiny and logic.

The irony (and duplicity) in this approach is that even the Rowley Court took pains to make sure that their Decision would not be interpreted to stand for this proposition.  In Footnote 25, the Court stated:  “We do not hold today that every handicapped child who is advancing from grade to grade in a regular public school system is automatically receiving a ‘free appropriate public education.'”  And yet, every single day, parents of children with special education needs are being told just that by their school districts.

In addition to being a legally flawed argument (one which has become even more so as federal cases over the decades since the 1982 Decision have increasingly raised the bar for what constitutes FAPE), the attempt to equate good grades with appropriate programming makes no sense.

Grades are extremely subjective, and can be based on everything from the level of modification a child is receiving, to how much a teacher wants to reward effort.

I know this because I have witnessed it first hand, and have even heard teachers testify in cases that they gave the student an “A” in Spelling, as an example, even though the child could not spell, in order to boost the child’s confidence.  I have also unfortunately had many, many situations arise where, within weeks of the parents hiring me to represent them because their child is struggling in school, suddenly the grades that start coming home are remarkably improved.  I know it sounds cynical, but I have often joked that all of those books, programs and courses out there that advertise a guaranteed increase in your child’s grades have nothing on the effect that hiring a special education attorney does on the report card!

Of course, any parent likes to see a good report card, but the parents I talk to are less interested in the “window dressing” of good grades than they are in the outcomes of quality educational services.

Unfortunately, grades, and the emphasis placed on them, is another instance where the motives of parents of children with disabilities are gravely misunderstood by schools.  Standardized testing, including district-wide assessments, and whether a child is demonstrating functional academic and social skills, are far better indicators of educational success than report cards.  As one of my clients once said:  “don’t put him on the Honor Roll when you haven’t taught him how to read the local newspaper announcing it!”