Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 2

In our posting, Writing Measurable Annual Goals?- Part 1, we talked about what goals are, the purpose they serve, and how they relate to present levels of performance. In today’s posting, we’re going to talk about the federal requirement that goals be measurable and how measurable goals can be written.

I cannot emphasize enough how critically important it is that goals are clearly and succinctly written in objective, quantifiable terms. In order for anything to be measurable, it must deal in absolutes and the language must mean the same thing to anyone who reads it.

First I’m going to give examples of unmeasurable goals and then I’m going to give you examples of measurable goals. I want you to contrast and compare them against each other.

Examples of Unmeasurable Goals:

[Student] will demonstrate understanding of language concepts by naming items within a given category with 80% accuracy.

Now pretend you have to implement this goal. First you’ll notice that this sentence contains two verbs: “demonstrate”  and “naming”. This is confusing. The piece that reads “will demonstrate understanding of language concepts” is superfluous and misleading. Including this language implies that something greater is going on here than that for which the language of the goal really provides.

There is another place on the goal page where the type of goal can be indicated without cluttering up the language of the goal itself. The language of the goal should describe what exact task the student is supposed to perform and nothing more.

If you eliminate this unnecessary bit to render the goal down to only what outcome the student needs to demonstrate, you’re left with “[Student] will name items within a given category with 80% accuracy.”  This is incredibly vague.

Does the student only have to do this once during the entire year that the IEP is in effect in order to have met the goal? If so, has he really mastered any new skill ? If not, how many trials must he perform at 80% accuracy in order to determine that the targeted skill has been mastered? How is the 80% calculated? How is any of this supposed to be measured? How many items must the student name within a given category? From how many categories will he have to name items? I’d also prefer to see the words “at least” immediately precede “80%” so that the student is expected to achieve “at least 80% accuracy,” which is different that saying flat-out the target is 80% and no more.

[Student] will write 15/26 letter sounds when dictated orally.

Again, this is vague. While we have some numbers in here, the goal overall is not measurable. How many trials must the student perform in order for it to be said that he mastered the targeted skill? And which 15 of the 26 letter sounds must he write? The way the goal is written, he’d only have to perform as described once during the entire year the IEP is in effect and the goal could be said to have been met. That doesn’t mean that knowledge was gained or a skill was acquired. It could be a totally random fluke.

I’d also like to see “at least” precede “15/26” for the same reasons indicated above under the previous example, along with clarification of which 15 letter sounds he’s supposed to learn. It shouldn’t include the ones he already knew when the baseline data was taken for the present levels statement.

In the classroom setting, [Student] will follow an individually designed visual schedule of his daily activities with minimal verbal prompts as measured by observation record achieving 80% accuracy.

Here, this sounds pretty okay except for the measurability. At least you have a decent idea of the spirit of the goal, but how many is “minimal”? Is the 80% accuracy meant to be averaged over the course of the year or just within the final stage of the goal? If it’s just the final stage, how long of a period of time is that? How is the 80% calculated? Is it a flat-out 80% or at least 80%?

In my many years as a special education advocate, I’ve come to realize that “achieving 80% accuracy” has become the arbitrary language that gets plugged in by default because it sounds measurable to parents, most of whom really don’t understand the measurability requirement or how it can actually be satisfied. It implies that some kind of calculation must be taking place or you wouldn’t be able to arrive at a percentage and 80% sounds like a high enough number that most parents will think the goal is reasonably ambitious.

But, when you start picking apart the language of the goal to turn it into a math word problem, you realize that there are too many unidentified variables to do any kind of calculation that can result in any kind of a percentage. Far too often, the percentage isn’t really the result of measurement; it’s a “guesstimation.”? Teaching staff will say, “Oh, I’d say he was about 75% accurate.”? There is no measurement in a situation like this at all.

To arrive at 80%, you need 4 out of 5, 8 out of 10, or 16 out of 20, etc. things done a certain way for the math to work out. This is where the number of trials and the number of presentations per trial becomes important.

When you get into reading and writing goals, this becomes even more complex. You need to specify the grade level of the passages to be read or written or use other terminology that describes the complexity of the language that the student is expected to read or write. You cannot use vague language like “at his instructional level” without identifying what the student’s instructional level is in the present levels of performance statement.

Really, that kind of language should be avoided altogether because the purpose of a goal is to move the student forward. If the goal is expecting the student to be performing at the same instructional level at the end of the goal as he was performing at the beginning, this generally means that he?isn’t actually expected?to progress.

The only real way to use this kind of language is to make sure there is also a goal in the IEP targeting the increase of the student’s instructional reading level and collecting data on progress towards that goal throughout the same annual IEP time frame so that the instructional reading level is known while any other goals that require presentation of text at the student’s instructional level can be appropriately adjusted as the year progresses.

Sometimes goals are poorly written because the school members of the IEP team really don’t know how to write them. Other times, they are deliberately keeping the language vague so that there is little that parents can actually hold them to. If the student fails to progress, it’s hard to point to the goal and say he didn’t meet it if it was vaguely written. Some school team members deliberately write weak goals so that they aren’t accountable to much.

Examples of Measurable Goals:

When presented with a worksheet containing 20 numbers, [Student] will correctly identify the place value of each number independently (tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousands) in at least 4 of 5 trials over 2 consecutive weeks as measured by work samples.

This is nicely written. There is no way that two different people could pick this up and walk away with different understandings of what needs to be done.

Given a picture of interest, [Student] will be able to independently write 2 sentences (no dictation or adult prompting) using correct punctuation and capitalization in at least 3 out of 4 trials in a two week period as measured by work samples.

Again, this is really succinct clear language that describes an outcome that can be easily measured. It’s evident what the student has to do to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skill.

When given a reading passage at the end of first grade level about a topic of interest, [Student] will orally answer factual questions correctly by giving a sentence of at least 3 words in at least 3 out of 5 opportunities per trial for 4 trials within a 2 week period as measured by teacher made test.

This is a little convoluted, but you still arrive at the same place no matter how you look at it. Goal-writing isn’t meant to be Shakespeare. You could rearrange the words so they flow more smoothly, but the targeted outcome is still explained even as it is.

When you compare these last three examples against the first three, you can see the stark differences. The first three are vague and don’t really tell you what you’re supposed to do. The last three describe specific outcomes that can be measured.

The first two examples of the unmeasurable goals don’t even explain how they will be measured. The third unmeasurable goal example uses “observation record” as its method of measurement, but you have to be really careful with this.

Just like an arbitrary percentage without any indication of how it is actually supposed to be calculated is really just an estimate rather than a measurement, the term “observation” is often used as an arbitrary indication of how progress will be measured. In and of itself, “observation” isn’t any kind of measurement at all. “Observation” is simply looking at something.

An “observation record” is only as good as the kind of data it’s meant to collect and if that data isn’t described in the goal, whatever is recorded is likely to be unmeasurable.? I prefer that, instead of observation records or logs, there are data sheets and the method of measurement is indicated as “specific data collection,” but I’ll go along with “observation record” if the language of the goal is clear on what will be recorded or a copy of the observation record to be used is attached to the IEP as one of its pages, so there’s nothing left to anyone’s imagination as to what is supposed to happen.

If the goal is written in measurable terms, then the data sheets can be fairly simple check-off lists or tally sheets. Comments and anecdotal observations should supplement the data to provide context, but they shouldn’t replace the data.

We hope this makes goal writing make more sense. Please post your questions and comments. We realize this can be complicated and want to make sure you understand. As an added resource, you can visit http://www.calstat.org/iep/.

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12 thoughts on “Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 2”

  1. Pingback: measurable
  2. Hi Anne,

    We are working on a 3-day IEP university workshop at our agency and I have been influenced by your December 2008 articles on present levels and writing measurable annual goals. When I contacted you earlier in the school year with a question, you replied that you were in the process of updating some of your materials and position. I am just checking in to see how that is going and if you do have some updated material, where would be the best place to find it.

    Thanks for all your work and what you do.
    Jamie Bennett, School Psychologist

    1. Jamie,

      Thank you for your inquiry. The hold up is a case that is pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that could create new caselaw regarding IEP goal-writing. I am providing paralegal support to the attorney taking that case forward and have had to explain the science of it all to attorneys from the U.S. Dept. of Justice (which may be writing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of our case) and federal court judges and mediators, among others. At this point, any materials we produce regarding IEP goal-writing would be based on the exhaustive research we have conducted on this case, but until a ruling is issued that supports our position, some of the information we provide could end up being overturned if the case doesn’t go as we expect it to.

      With all the litigation we’ve been involved with since June 2012 (4 due process cases and 4 federal court appeals when we hadn’t seen any courtroom action since June/July 2008), it’s been insane. Plus, we’re carrying our full advocacy caseload while also working these litigation cases, so it’s been super insane. I honestly haven’t had time to finish the new materials and we’re hesitant to create something and put it out there if it just ends up getting changed. But, I agree that we need to get at least the scientific arguments out there even if some of the legal arguments continue to be debated.

      I can’t promise to attend to this right away, but I have now calendared some time in March to get the information out there for you that we discussed previously. I will also follow up with the folks at USC’s Rossier School of Education to see if they will be publishing materials that I provided them at the first of the year about the science of IEP goal-writing as it relates to the regulations. They asked me for content for their blog and I agreed to send them copies of my term papers from my grad classes last semester at CSUN for material. One of the papers was on IEP goal-writing. If they publish anything I gave them, I’ll be posting links to it on our blog and social media.


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