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IEP Measurable Annual Goals and Benchmark Objectives: Independence as a Synonym for Intrinsic Motivation

by Hope Nye - January 06, 2020

To support every studentís educational progress, the IDEA provides a framework through a system of measurable annual goals listed within student IEPs. Benchmark objectives following the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction scaffold supports for students to master skills identified within their measurable annual goals. When fading these supports through benchmark objectives, students transition from external to internal motivation when achieving independence with their target skill.

To ensure every child’s access to free and appropriate public education (FAPE), the U.S. Supreme Court “held the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to be reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress in light of the child’s circumstances” (Peeler, 2017). To accomplish this task, the IDEA requires that every student with a disability receive:

A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to meet the child’s needs that result from the child’s disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum; and meet each of the child’s other educational needs that result from the child’s disability” (Section 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (II), 2019).

The IDEA adds that each measurable annual goal must include “a description of how the child’s progress... will be measured” (Section 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (II), 2019).

Although states, school districts, and teaching professionals have autonomy on exactly how to write these annual goals, the current standard is for goals to follow the SMART acronym, which describes IEPs that are “specific, measurable, use action words, are realistic and relevant, and time-limited” (Wright, 2006, p. 115). For example, an IEP goal may be written as, “By 06/30/2020, when given a writing prompt, the student will quote evidence within a text that supports the prompt, improving written language skills from quoting evidence 0% of the time (0 of 3 consecutive trials) to 100% of the time (3 of 3 consecutive trials) as measured by teacher data sheets.” Whether calculated by percentage, rate, frequency, or duration, success is often determined by the student’s independence: their new ability to consistently and reliably perform the designated skill without relying on others.

Measurable annual goals become more complex when, “for children with disabilities who take alternate assessments aligned to alternate achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives” must be provided (Section 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (I) (cc), 2019). These objectives scaffold to build independence through the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction, which suggests that “cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to independent practice and application by the learner” (Frey & Fisher, 2011, p. 120). For example, a benchmark objective leading to the above written language goal may specify that in addition to a writing prompt, the student will perform the skill “when given a writing prompt, a graphic organizer, and positive reinforcement,” perhaps combined with a lower target accuracy percentage. Accommodations listed here may include a “change in the timing, formatting, setting, scheduling, response and/or presentation” (Families and Advocates Partnership for Education, 2001); in this example, the writing prompt is an example of a change to the assignment’s formatting and the positive reinforcement is a change to the assignment’s setting.

Whether offering praise, extra privileges, or a tangible reward, positive reinforcement motivates a student to perform the target skill through distinctly external factors. When defining independence as a student’s new ability to consistently and reliably perform the designated skill without relying on others, however, independence cannot be achieved while a student relies on external motivation. Through the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction, external motivators may be gradually faded out through progressive benchmarks to support students without relying on others, thus building internal motivation to perform the designated skill.


Families and Advocates Partnership for Education (FAPE). (2001, October 31). School Accommodations and Modifications. Retrieved November 23, 2019 from https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.accoms.mods.pdf.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2011). The formative assessment action plan: practical steps to more successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

U.S. Department of Education. (2019, November 7). Individuals with Disabilities Act, Section 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (II). Retrieved from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statute-chapter-33/subchapter-ii/1414/d/1/A/i/II.

U.S. Department of Education. (2019, November 7). Individuals with Disabilities Act, Section 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (I) (cc). Retrieved November from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statute-chapter-33/subchapter-ii/1414/d/1/A/i/I/cc.

Peeler, E. (2017, May 1). U.S. Supreme Court sets progress standard for children with individual education plans. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-36/may-june-2017/u-s--supreme-court-sets-progress-standard-for-children-with-indi/.

Wright, P. W. D., & Wright, P. D. (2006). Wrightslaw: Special education law. Hartfield, VA: Harbor House Law Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 06, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23172, Date Accessed: 1/23/2020 9:30:21 PM

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  • Hope Nye

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    HOPE NYE has an M.Ed in Special Education.
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