Present Levels of Performance – Where They Come From and Why We Need Them

We’ve discussed and provided a basic definition of present levels of performance in previous postings, but I really want to focus in on them in today’s posting because they are so critically important and so often over-looked. I’ve encountered IEPs that didn’t have them at all. I’ve also encountered IEPs that had such vague and non-specific present levels statements that they served no useful purpose whatsoever.

34 CFR ? 300.320 requires statements of present levels of performance as well as measurable annual goals. This is one of those things about the law that requires some reverse engineering and common sense. While the federal regulations do not spell out what all the elements of properly written present levels statements are, because they describe what a child can and cannot do at the time an IEP is written and because the goals describe what the child should be able to do one year from the date the IEP is written after receiving services, you can deduce that the present levels statements and the goals have to directly relate to each other.

In essence, your present levels are your “befores” and the goals are the “afters” that you’re aiming for. Measurability is required of goals so that you can tell if the student has made any progress or not, but that also requires that you knew where he/she was as of the start-date of the IEP as a point of reference. The progress a child is making over the course of the annual period covered by the goals has to be compared back against the present levels that were written at the time the IEP was developed.

For example, let’s take something easily measured like reading fluency. Reading fluency is basically how fast someone can either recognize on sight or decode a word while reading?- in essence, how fast can the person read (which doesn’t necessarily imply that the person understood what was read). Fluency is purely a measure of how fast a person can read off the text on the page.

Let’s say a child starts out at the beginning of an IEP with a fluency of 80 words per minute with first grade level text. The present levels of performance statement would read something like, “When provided with five consecutive passages of 150-200 words at the first grade level within a two-week period, [Student] demonstrated a reading fluency rate of 80 words per minute.” That’s pretty straightforward. The goal might read something like, “[Student] will read a passage of 200-250 words at the second grade reading level per trial with a fluency rate of at least 120 words per minute in 3 out of 5 consecutive trials within a two-week period as measured by teacher-recorded data.”

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the science of goal-writing right now; that’s an upcoming posting. But, because goals directly relate to present levels statements, I have to give an example here simply to make the point that without solid present levels, you have no idea whether a student’s performance towards a particular goal represents growth or not.

If you didn’t already know that the child read first grade level text at 80 wpm, then you wouldn’t know that second grade material at 120 wpm was an improvement. Where would you be?- where would the child be?- if you wrote a goal targeting 120 wpm and it turned out the child could already read 120 wpm? That’s not progress. That’s stagnation. What if the child actually read at only 10 wpm at the time the goal was written? Is it realistic to expect a fluency rate of 120 wpm after one year’s worth of intervention in a situation like that?

Because goals must be measurable, and because they refer back to the present levels of performance, the present levels themselves must be measurable. This really shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish if the last body of assessments were properly conducted and reported and all the present levels and goals from the time the assessments were conducted forward were properly written. But those, unfortunately, are big “ifs.”

I took the following example from the IEP of a student whose case we helped take to due process?a few years ago: “[Student] can copy anything. She is writing her first and last name on her own with few errors. She voluntarily writes ‘Daddy.’ She loves to write on the white boards.”

This is one of my favorite examples of how not to write a present levels statement. It was written for a seven-year-old with Down’s Syndrome and very serious holes in her knowledge due to poorly designed programming over a period of years. When I first read this child’s IEP and came across this language, I said to her father (rather sarcastically, I’ll admit), “She can copy anything? Like, the Mona Lisa? Wow! That’s amazing!”

Here are the major failings of this present levels statement: the word “anything” is wholly inappropriate. Additionally, there is no way to know what the author of this present levels statement meant by “few” errors. How many is that? What kind of errors? Could she write her name with or without prompting? With or without a model? Plus, the language that she could write her first and last name with few errors was, verbatim, the same language in her present levels statement of her writing goal written one year prior, which suggests that she failed to make any progress over that one year’s time.

Her whole IEP was written like this. I can’t fathom why the District didn’t settle the case; if I’d been the District’s director of special education, I would have been mortified for this case to go before a Judge.

I distinctly recall sitting in the hearing and watching the Judge shake the IEP in the air at the Program Coordinator from the District who was testifying at the time, demanding, “You just testified that it’s your job to make sure IEPs are written properly by your staff.? How do you explain yourself?” She started to cry. He’d had a box of tissue brought in right before she began her testimony and shoved it in her direction as he threw the IEP back down on his table in disgust. The parent and I certainly felt vindicated. We’d made that same argument at the IEP level and it hadn’t gotten us anywhere.

Conversely, here is a properly written present levels statement from a real IEP: [Student] has difficulty recognizing and explaining how words are related, as demonstrated on the CELF-4. His responses tend to be vague and do not identify the most important elements. Word Classes Total: Percentile Rank 1, WC Receptive PR=2, WC Expressive Subtest PR=4. Verbal analogies and quantity vocabulary are areas of particular need for [Student]. He also confuses words that are phonologically similar (e.g., cricket, crooked). He needs to learn to hear the differences in the sounds of the words and recognize salient information.”

Granted, it took a lot to arrive at an IEP with great language like this in it, but once it was all said in done, this child’s IEP was truly a document worth enforcing and we were able to avoid litigation altogether. He’s being doing great ever since.

That was from a couple of years ago. Here’s another good example of sound present levels statements taken from a recent IEP for a student that I attended earlier this month: “[Student] has difficulty comprehending his own reading and that of others. He is often unable to answer surface questions about the story he or others are reading aloud. When a simple passage is read to [Student] and he is asked to answer 10 comprehension questions [Student] answers 4 out of 10 correct. When [Student] has read the passage and asked to answer 10 comprehension questions in writing [Student] correctly answered 6 out or 10 questions.?An SRA reading/comprehension assessment found [Student] answering 4 out of 40 comprehension questions.”

You will note that the present levels statements I’ve cited as being relatively good are much longer than the one I cited as being bad. But, just because a present levels statement has a lot of words in it, that doesn’t mean it really says anything of value. It’s easy to say a lot of nothing with a lot of words.

You will notice that these good present levels statements include numbers. It’s important to appreciate the logic of basing IEP goals on empirical data. Measurability, which is required of annual goals, means that you have to count something. IEPs have to be reasonably calculated to render educational benefit. You can’t count or calculate anything without numbers.

Imagine hiring a contractor to build a privacy wall along the side of your property. If the contractor came out to your house and “eyeballed it” rather than taking measurements and diagramming out his work in advance, and failed to mark out with stakes and string where to dig for the foundation of the wall according to his measurements and diagrams, what would be the likelihood of you actually letting this guy tear up your yard, pour concrete, and stack bricks along your property line? What do you think the finished wall would look like if the contractor were to just “eyeball it” along the way rather than have taken measurements and worked off of them throughout the project?

If you wouldn’t dream of letting a contractor “eyeball it” on a wall in your yard, why on Earth would you trust anything less empirical with your children’s or your students’ educations? There is no room for vague, wishy-washy language when it comes to describing what a child can and cannot do at the time an IEP is written. That is the foundation upon which everything else is built.

I hope this information helps you better understand present levels of performance. Please do comment and let us know if you have questions about anything discussed in today’s posting or have an example of your own to share.

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