But he’s making good grades!!

The Gold Standard for providing a Free Appropriate Public Education is student progress.  Courts have been known to disregard procedural errors by the school district if there is evidence of academic progress.  That makes sense. After all, it should be about results more than process. 

When demonstrating that a student is making progress the school often points to the grades. This is particularly important for students with disabilities who are expected to achieve at grade level.  When the classroom teachers report that the student is passing, mastering grade level material on par with non-disabled students, this is strong evidence that the school is serving that student well. 

But let me offer a word of caution.  Principals should make sure that the grades are fairly earned.  In a case from Wisconsin the district argued that the student received FAPE, largely based on his passing grades and promotion from one grade to the next.  The court noted that this is normally good evidence of progress, but not in this case:

That assertion was premised, however, on the passing grades and advancement being accurate reflections of the student’s mastery of grade level content.

Here, J.L.’s English teacher did not factor his writing into his grade, and other tests of his writing ability showed him writing well below grade level. Thus, for this child, grades and advancement ring hollow as indicators of progress….

This is a good one to talk to teachers about.  Writing was the area where the student’s disability most affected him, and the English teacher simply discounted his failure to turn in assignments.  So the student got passing grades, but the court found those grades to “ring hollow.”

It might be particularly tempting for teachers in the COVID era to be a bit generous with grades, considering all of the difficulties kids, parents and teachers are encountering.  However, the law requires that we give parents an honest assessment of a student’s mastery of the material.  With regard to students with disabilities the failure to do so can have legal consequences.

The case is Grafton School District v. J.L., decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on July 8, 2020.  It’s reported at 76 IDELR 281, Special Ed Connection.


Tomorrow: We hear from Rip Snort!