Failure is a sensitive subject in special education. Teachers and administrators often get flustered and begin to stammer at the prospect of a student with an IEP failing a course. Layers of complexity cloud traditional paradigms of passing and failing. These complexities confuse even seasoned veterans. Inconsistent and questionable practices develop in response to uncertainty and yes, fear.
Teachers and administrators face a set of difficult questions when considering failure for a student receiving special education. If a student has a disability that interferes with access to the general education curriculum, can failing that student ever be fair? If a student has an IEP and is failing a course, is the student failing, or is the IEP team failing? What is the relationship between goal progress and course success? How will a student’s parents respond to failure? None of these are easy to answer or predict.
Concrete answers do exist, although none of these apply to every situation. A student with an IEP can fail a course. Grading policies will vary per district, but students with IEPs can fail or receive an incomplete grade, depending on circumstances. Incompletion begs the IEP team to determine why assignments went unfinished. The team might have to intervene to promote a better completion rate. A student also might fail even with appropriate specially designed instruction in place. A specific course might be more than the student can handle. Students without IEPs fail, after all. Of course, this also begs the IEP team to review the appropriateness of the course and whether or not the failure was an anomaly.
Whenever a student with an IEP is on the precipice of failure, the IEP team has some explaining to do. Attempts to assign a failing grade are ill-advised without mounds of documentation. The school members of the IEP team must be able prove that any accommodations or modifications described in the IEP were provided with fidelity. They must show that they made the parent aware of declining performance early in that decline. An intervention should be noted as having been tried in an effort to turn around performance. Without documentation of these steps, a parent can rightfully challenge a failing grade by suggesting the team didn’t implement the IEP effectively. The steps involved in justifying a failing grade might influence the sentiment in some schools that no students with IEPs can fail.
Another set of factors might make failing grades unlikely in special education. Individual special education teachers have a huge influence on student success or failure, but perhaps not in the way one might expect. Many special education teachers go to great lengths to prevent student failure. Some of their motivation is benevolent. They want to see their students succeed. Genuine success can be in short supply in special education. In the interest of promoting self-esteem and avoiding frustration, special education teachers might create conditions in which success (and importantly, progress) is all but guaranteed. Everyone wins in this scenario—to a point. The student will feel encouraged. The parent will be pleased with a pattern of success. The teacher will feel a sense of meaning and victory in a job that has the potential to be a succession of defeats. Failure is prevented, but the success that displaces it might be somewhat (or completely) artificial.
This model of thinking can influence the IEP writing process and thus become another factor. Teams might design goals in the interest of ensuring progress, making the goals pedestrian enough to be readily attainable. Safeguards can be included in IEPs that nearly prevent course failure. These might be necessary and sensible accommodations, such as the use of instructional-level materials or alternate assessments. These also might be protections from the possibility of failure, such as replacing credit completion with IEP goal progress as a means of determining promotion. When enough safeguards are added, students can end up having a high school experience that gives them a distorted idea of their abilities.
A classic criticism of special education is the tendency of schools to pass students with IEPs from grade to grade despite these students having significantly below average competencies. Critics (including parents) wonder how students with second grade reading levels can pass high school English classes. Some of the reason indeed might be the reluctance of school officials to issue failing grades to these students because they fear legal challenges. Teachers become implicit when they alter expectations beyond what the IEP demands. Some IEPs offer enough protections to make this unnecessary. To guarantee passing grades, the students might either receive a grossly modified version of the curriculum, or they might benefit from an exceedingly generous grading rubric. These might be used in tandem. Naturally, such efforts stir further criticism about the worth of special education services. What must be remembered is these students wouldn’t have IEPs if they could do the work without support. The difficulty is determining at what point necessary support becomes dubious promotion.
True to the nature of special education, the failure of students with IEPs must be examined case-by-case. Sometimes students fail despite team efforts to support them. Each time this happens, teams must regroup and attempt to remedy whatever is causing the failure, at least to the extent this is possible. Schools and specific teachers might deliberately or unconsciously prevent students with IEPs from failing. Deciding how to level the proverbial playing field without completely eliminating rigor and accountability is an ongoing struggle in special education. A uniform way to do this will remain elusive. Each IEP team must determine this for each student and adjust as needed. The “I” still stands for “Individualized.”