Essential Elements of IEP Goals

New Standards in Special Education Series: Being Compliant Isn’t Enough – How to Prepare Your District for the Increasing Responsibility to Improve Student Outcomes

Author: Nicole Heid, Senior Program Manager – PCG and Matthew Korobkin, Senior Advisor – PCG.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004 (IDEA) establishes annual goals as an integral part of a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Since IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, there has been a push from the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to assure that IEP goals are aligned to state standards. 1 Recent policy initiatives coming from USED such as Results Driven Accountability have placed an increased focus on student outcomes. 2 And the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District has made it clear that goals must be ambitious and that schools need to show that students are making progress. 3

In the first post of this series, Shifting Priorities: IEP Goal Writing, we discussed how these recent policy changes are prompting school districts to take a fresh look at how they are crafting IEP goals. With a focus on improving student outcomes, this post will get even more granular and focus on the Essential Elements of IEP Goals.

To make IEP goals that are ambitious, standards-based, and capable of monitoring student progress, special education administrators and IEP teams should ask some key questions:

  1. What are the student’s areas of need?
  2. How do the student’s IEP goals align with state standards?
  3. How do teachers and IEP team members measure student progress?

In this post, we’ll expand upon each question in more detail and discuss how an effective case management solution can help you set IEP goals that incorporate these essential elements.

What are the student’s areas of need?

The areas of need arising from a child’s disability identify their present academic and functional abilities. In order to set a high bar for student success through IEP goals, the areas of need should be accurate, informed by data, and clearly articulated in the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) section of the IEP. To determine the academic and functional areas of need for a student with an IEP, it is up to each IEP team to determine the assessments, benchmarks, and observations that will be used to identify the needs. Once these areas of need are identified, goals can be developed to support the student in targeting growth in these areas.

Some questions to consider in selecting areas of need include:

  • What specific areas does the student struggle with, given grade-level material?
  • What data or assessments do I have to show the areas in which the student struggles?
  • How does this area of need impact the student’s functioning in the school environment?
  • What supports are needed to assist this student in overcoming their challenges?
  • What strengths does the student have that could help them in this area of need?

Areas of need are not always academic in nature. Some additional areas of need include:

  • Social/Emotional
  • Behavioral
  • Physical
  • Health

Areas of need can sometimes be overlooked by IEP teams because they are relying on multiple sources to gather this information – school psychologists, special education teachers, general education teachers, and related service providers. A significant pitfall for school IEP teams is when goals are written, but there are no corresponding areas of need in the PLAAFP. It is important for districts to leverage their IEP case management solution to assure that all members of an IEP team are entering consistent, high-quality information to inform ambitious IEP goals.

How do the student’s IEP goals align with state standards?

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. It addresses a broader, more meaningful set of academic skills and knowledge than a traditional IEP. Standards-based IEPs raise the bar on expectations and achievement: parents and teachers have higher—but realistic—expectations of children with disabilities, and students receive tailored instruction and accommodations to help them achieve in the general education curriculum at their enrolled grade level.

IEP goals and standards are not synonymous. Standards serve as guideposts for what students need to know to make grade-level progress. IEP goals articulate what students must do in order to master the standard, taking stock of potential barriers the student may have and designing the goal to address them.

Aligning goals to state standards holds teachers and practitioners accountable for selecting goals that are challenging for students with an IEP, as the standards are for general education students. IEP teams must therefore select goals that are consistent with the student’s grade level of attendance. Utilize your district’s IEP case management tool to write high-quality, ambitious IEP goals that draw upon (but are not identical to) the standards in your state.

How do teachers and IEP team members measure student progress?           

Once goals and objectives are selected, measurement criteria must be established. Remember, as a best practice, IEP goals should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Goal criteria focuses on the Measurable component of a SMART goal. To determine the measurements used within a goal, IEP teams should answer the following questions:

  • How will I measure this goal?
  • What assessment will I use?
  • How frequently will I measure this?
  • What data will be available as a result of this assessment?
  • What is the target?
  • When should the student reasonably be able to achieve the target?

It is important to consider these questions during the creation of each goal so that data-driven progress monitoring can be established and goals can be measured over a period of time.

Leveraging a case management solution that allows for progress monitoring reports based on student goals is especially beneficial to students and IEP teams. Effective progress monitoring reports yield useful quantitative information to inform instruction and improve student outcomes. These data are useful to students, their families, and instructors. These reports can also be useful if and when a district is engaged in a due process dispute.  


An effective case management system serves as a tool designed to document and monitor the effectiveness of IEP goals. It prompts school personnel to design goals that are measurable, and to display data regarding the progress towards such goals. As such, it provides a comprehensive solution that supports educators in more effectively monitoring student success by tracking progress on IEP goals.

Below are some helpful tips for special education administrators and IEP teams to consider as they move through the essential elements of an IEP:

  • Leverage your case management solution to assure that all members of an IEP team are entering consistent, high-quality information that can be used to inform ambitious IEP goals. Confirm that all IEP goals have corresponding areas of need in the PLAAFP.
  • Utilize your district’s IEP case management tool to write high-quality, ambitious goals that benefit the student. Remember to unpack state standards and incorporate them into IEP goals; however, do not use state standards alone as IEP goals.

  • Employ a case management solution that allows for progress monitoring reports based on student goals. Include and engage students and families with progress reports. Utilize reports to inform instruction among a student’s special and general education teachers.


Want to Learn More?

PCG proudly offers EDPlan EasyIEP, one of the most commonly used case management systems in the country, with one in five IEPs nationwide created in our system. EDPlan supports special educators with a comprehensive solution that manages the entire special education process, facilitates compliance, and fosters a focus on student outcomes.

For more information on how EDPlan can help you create ambitious, standards-based, and SMART IEP goals, contact us today at 1-800-210-6113 or

About the Authors

Nicole Heid is a former Supervisor & Director of Special Services in New Jersey. In her role at Public Consulting Group, she helps school districts improve student outcomes by providing support and guidance on EDPlan and delivering professional development and training sessions throughout New Jersey.

Matthew Korobkin is a New Jersey-based special education subject matter expert with Public Consulting Group. A former teacher and state education official at the Delaware Department of Education, he now works with school districts on special education strategic planning, training, and special education program reviews.

About Public Consulting Group

Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) is a leading public sector solutions implementation and operations improvement firm that partners with health, education, and human services agencies to improve lives. Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, PCG has over 2,000 professionals in more than 60 offices around the US, in Canada and in Europe. PCG’s Education practice offers consulting services and technology solutions that help schools, school districts, and state education agencies/ministries of education to promote student success, improve programs and processes, and optimize financial resources. To learn more, visit


1 November 16, 2015 Dear Colleague Letter, U.S. Department of Education:

2 Results Driven Accountability:

3 Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District:



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