The Importance of Measurable IEP Goals

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at individualized education program (IEP) goals and learning how to write them.  This is an imperative component of special education programming in the United States; IEP’s set the stage for a student’s educational progression.  IEP’s are:

A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child or on the behalf of a the child…[1] 

Essentially, the IEP “serves as a blueprint for the services that a student is to receive, and it clarifies the types and amounts of those supports.”[2]

Among the components of an IEP are statements of “measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals.”1   Typically, these goals address specific areas such as: academic goals (e.g., addition), social-skills (e.g., turn-taking) and adaptive behaviors (e.g., hand-washing).

While looking through pages of IEP sample goals, I’ve noticed that there is much variance in terms of “measurability.”  Although the federal regulations clearly call for measurable targets, many of the goals I’ve come across beg the question: “How do I measure this goal?”

Here’s an example:

Measurable Annual Goal: Student will improve organization skills.

Short-Term Instructional Objectives or Benchmarks: Student will maintain a neat and orderly notebook organized by subject areas.

Expected Level of Achievement: to the satisfaction of the student, parents, regular education teachers and itinerant teacher.

Evaluation Schedule­: quarterly

Method of Evaluation: direct observation, teacher judgment, and parent and student input.

There are some problems with the above goal:

Subjectivity: Terms such as “improve,” “neat and orderly,” and “satisfaction” have different meanings to different people.  Remember, there may be many educators and related service providers working on an IEP goal; all of them need to know the specific criteria the student is working towards.

For example: How do we define a “neat and orderly notebook?”

I consider my closet to be “neat and orderly”: I know where everything is and can retrieve items with a short latency.  My wife, however, thinks my closet is a mess.

Several years ago, she organized the closet using her criteria for: “neat and orderly.”

She placed items in boxes, stacked the boxes, etc… The result? I couldn’t find anything.

The teachers, parents and related service providers working on this team need to create a clear definition of an organized notebook and the term “neat and orderly” should be replaced with specific criteria in the IEP.

Expected Level of Achievement/Method of Evaluation:  Our original goal states that “direct observation, teacher judgment, and parent and student input” will be used to evaluate progress.

The student might state:  “I think I did a great job with this goal’

The teacher: “I still don’t think he’s quite got it.”

The parents: “Yeah, he’s doing well with this.”

What would we do in this scenario?  Based on this, how do we know if the student “improved?”

We might re-write the goal like this:

When provided with an assignment, homework sheet, or other take-home paper (e.g., letter to parents) and given the direction “Put the paper in [section] of your notebook,” the student will place the paper in the corresponding section of his notebook within 45 seconds of being handed the paper with 80% accuracy (e.g., 4/5 trials or 8/10 trials) across three consecutive school days. 

Now we have something to measure and a way to determine progress.

Time: Did he do it in the allotted 45 seconds?

We might collect data: How long is it currently taking to put his paper away?  What is the average amount of time other students use when putting assignments away? We could use this data to determine a reasonable amount of time to accomplish the task.

Accuracy: Is the student consistently meeting the goal?

Let’s pretend that the student consistently puts papers in his notebook while working with his speech therapist, but does not do so when working with his general ed. teacher.   At the IEP review, these two educators will have differing views of this students “improvement.”  We might include a data sheet that travels with the student and his notebook; teachers and related service providers can record the student’s progress throughout the school day.  Using this data, we can observe if the student is completing the skill 80% of the time.

Criteria for Mastery: How do we know if a student has mastered a skill?

We might observe the behaviors of other students or come to a consensus when meeting with parents, teachers and related service providers in order to set our criteria. Specificity is important.  Stating that the student will meet his goal with “80% accuracy across three school days” provides measurable and observable information.

Our original goal does not have a clear criteria for mastery.  It states: “Student will improve organizational skills.”

This goal relies on anecdotal reports and teacher impressions; again, these could vary.

An IEP goal is a bit like a recipe for a student’s academic program.  When we follow a recipe for making bread, we don’t come across instructions like: “Throw in some flour” or “Toss some yeast in there.”

If that were the case, we would all create different variations of the bread.

An IEP is radically important to a student.  We need to work towards developing goals that are measurable and rely, to the least extent possible, on subjective terminology.


[1] Idea regulations:individualized education program(iep). (2006, October 4). Retrieved from http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/,root,dynamic,TopicalBrief,10,

[2] Friend, M. P. (2008). Special education, contemporary perspectives for school professionals. Allyn & Bacon.

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