Good Grades are not enough to Support a Finding of Ineligibility
By Michael Connolly, Esq.
Shareholder at McAndrews Law Offices, P.C.
A child’s good grades in school are often used as a basis for a school district to deny eligibility for special education services or to determine that a student has made meaningful educational progress. The relevancy of a student’s grades – at least in the context of determining his or her eligibility for special education under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) – was recently again the subject of a lawsuit, this time before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The decision in Doe v. Cape Elizabeth School District may prove helpful to many parents facing questions of eligibility in the face of good grades.
The decision in Doe reinforces the premise that grades are not everything, and in particular not necessarily determinative of a student’s eligibility. More specifically, Jane, the student at issue in the Doe decision, struggled with reading and learning to talk as early as preschool. When she was in second grade in the Cape Elizabeth School District, Jane was identified as eligible for special education services as a student with a specific learning disability (“SLD”) due to deficits in reading fluency. By the middle of seventh grade, the School District recommended placing Jane on “consult status” for the remainder of the year given her good grades. Although concerned about this decision, the parents ultimately agreed to place Jane on consult status as recommended by the School District. The following year, the District conducted a reevaluation and recommended that Jane be removed from special education due to her good grades and her performance on generalized state standardized tests and individually administered standardized tests. The parents disagreed and obtained an independent educational evaluation (“IEE”). While some of the tests administered as part of the IEE were consistent with the School District’s testing, others revealed that Jane was performing much lower than the School District’s assessments suggested, particularly in the area of reading fluency. The IEP team met to consider the result of the IEE, but continued to maintain that Jane was not eligible for special education due to her overall academic performance in school. The parents disagreed and requested a hearing. The Hearing Officer ultimately agreed with the District and also found Jane ineligible for special education. The parents appealed to the United States District Court who affirmed the hearing officer, resulting in the appeal to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although the First Circuit ultimately found that a student’s grades and overall school performance can be one factor considered in determining eligibility under the IDEA, the court also made it clear that the grades or school performance considered must be narrowed to those components related to the student’s suspected academic or functional deficiencies. Moreover, the court found that the weight to be accorded to generalized academic performance – particularly in the situation where, as in Doe, the student’s overall academic records point in a different direction from the results of specific assessments that directly measure the suspected area of disability – must depend on the unique circumstances of the child.
As such, in Doe, the court placed particular emphasis on the fact that certain assessments administered by the District and the independent evaluator specifically measured Jane’s reading fluency skills – the suspected area of disability in that case – while in contrast, Jane’s overall academic performance was multi-faceted, and was the result, at least in part, of her higher intelligence, hard work, and devoted parents, as well as accommodations provided by the school, such as extended time for tests. The court therefore cautioned that when the risk is high that a child’s overall academic performance could mask a learning disability because of innate or ancillary factors specific to that child, generalized academic measures – even when proven to be a fair indicator of the child’s learning disability – must have high probative value to outweigh the specific disability measures. As such, the court ultimately found that the lower court and hearing officer erred in relaying on Jane’s overall academic achievements without assessing the relevance of such achievements to her area of disability.
Although the court in Doe does not specifically address the impact of overall good grades in the context of whether or not a student made meaningful education progress, the reasoning provided by the court in relation to eligibility is nonetheless analogous. In other words, while a student’s generalized academic performance (i.e., his or her grades) may be a factor in determining whether progress has been made, the weight given to that overall performance must be based on the unique circumstances of the child, particularly when the child’s overall academic performance is discrepant from his or her performance on assessments or progress monitoring measuring the specific areas impacted by his or her disability.