Learning Goal-Driven Instructional Design: Aligning Student Needs, Goals, Standards, and Specially Designed Instruction

Students with disabilities (SWD) are entitled to learning goal-driven instruction that takes into careful consideration student need, academic standards, and specially designed instruction (SDI).  The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA, 2004) and the more recently decided Supreme Court Case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), assert that the quality and effectiveness of a child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) must be “… appropriately ambitious …” and include “… challenging objectives ….”  In short, teachers are required to provide instruction that is adapted to meet the specific needs of SWD so that they can achieve the same educational standards and goals as students without disabilities. 

What does this mean for special education teachers trying to develop compliant and meaningful IEPs for SWD? It means that quality learning goals are crucial for bridging the gaps between student deficits and educational standards.  Developing quality learning goals should be a complex and thoughtful process that takes into consideration the unique characteristics (strengths and needs) of individual students, prior response to instruction, current skill-specific data sources, and high-leverage practices (HLP) known to be effective with struggling learners (Ricconomi, Morano, & Hughes, 2017).

Further, draft IEPs must include a full review of available data, including progress monitoring of prior learning goals.  In addition, teachers may need to conduct additional assessments if the amount of skill-specific data is insufficient.  Teachers should pay particular attention to goals that do not change over time.  It is not appropriate for broad goals to reappear year after year with no indication of skill-specific growth over time.  Teachers must also be cautious about selecting goals from a dropdown menu or a list of sample goals (More & Hart-Barnett, 2014).  While struggling learners may have similar needs, the IEP team needs to ask, “What about this goal is individualized?” when reviewing each learning goal.  There should be clear connections between current skill-specific data points in the Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP or PLOP) statement and the skill specific learning goals so that targeted SDI can be developed.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the CEEDAR Center have identified 22 HLP to guide the practice of special education teachers in developing quality IEPs and delivering qualify instruction across subjects and settings (McKleskey et al., 2017).  Of these 22 HLPs, the last 12 fall into the category of Instruction with #11-13 emphasizing the importance of learning goals (highlighted in green below).  Learning goals establish the connection between student needs identified in the PLAAFP and the day-to-day instruction provided to students.

Table 1

 High-Leverage Practices



  1. Collaborate with professionals to increase student
  2. Organize and facilitate effective meetings with
    professionals and families.
  3. Collaborate with families to support student learning
    and secure needed services.
  1. Use multiple sources of information to develop a
    comprehensive understanding of a student’s strengths and
  2. Interpret and communicate assessment information with
    stakeholders to collaboratively design and implement educational programs.
  3. Use student assessment data, analyze instructional
    practices, and make necessary adjustments that improve
    student outcomes.



  1. Establish a consistent, organized, and respectful
    learning environment.
  2. Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide
    students’ learning and behavior.
  3. Teach social behaviors.
  4. Conduct functional behavioral assessments to develop
    individual student behavior support plans.
  1. Identify and prioritize long- and short-term goals.
  2. Systematically design instruction toward specific
    learning goals.
  3. Adapt curriculum tasks and materials for specific
    learning goals.
  1. Teach cognitive and metacognitive strategies to support learning and independence.
  2. Provided scaffolded supports.
  3. Use explicit instruction.
  4. Use flexible grouping.
  5. Use strategies to promote active student engagement.
  6. Use assistive and instructional technologies.
  7. Provide intensive instruction.
  8. Teach students to maintain and generalize new learning across time and settings.
  9. Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior.

From McKleskey et al. (2017).

If special education teachers engage in these HLPS when developing IEPS, they increase the likelihood that skill gaps will be closed, and subsequent student learning goals will show evidence of growth over time.  If skill-specific learning goals are not driving instructional design, teachers need to revisit the available data and consider adjusting the goals.  The IEP is a working document that should be revisited whenever students are not responding to interventions or when they have achieved goals before the expiration of the IEP.  Progress should be reported on learning goals at least as often as grades are reported by general education teachers (United States Department of Education, 2008).  Any indication that a student is not making sufficient progress on a learning goal is a sign that the IEP or instructional interventions are not meeting the needs of the student and warrants a possible adjustment or addendum with specific attention given to potential SDI.Table 2 shows an example of a student entering the fifth grade who has scored poorly on the word-analysis questions on both the third- and fourth-grade Reading Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments, with other classroom assessments indicating continued lack of growth in word analysis.  The SDI provided during fifth grade should look different than the SDI provided during third and fourth grade.  To that end, the special education teacher will have to consider replacing previously used strategies or adjusting the intensity (i.e., dosage, complexity) of instruction (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Malone, 2018).  If a more specific learning goal is not implemented than identified in third and fourth grade with more strategically developed SDI, the student is unlikely to demonstrate growth in this critical skill area by the end of fifth grade.

Table 2

Targeted Learning Goal Development

Student Characteristics
  • Identified as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
    with working memory and processing speed deficits impacting
    both reading and math academic subtests.
  • Shows progress with explicit and intensified instruction
    in specific learning strategies and repetition of content.
Present Level Area of Need Scored 290 at the Below Basic High range on the 3 rd Grade Reading SOL and 327 at the Basic Low
range on the 4th– Grade Reading SOL Assessments with specific weaknesses in word analysis related to decoding multisyllabic words.Reads independently at a 3.4 grade level (STAR, June 2018).
Prior Learning Goals 3rd Grade – By June of 2017 the student will demonstrate 70% fluency when reading 2nd grade text as measured by running records.

4th Grade – By June of 2018, the student will
demonstrate 70% fluency when reading third grade text as measured by running records.

Prior Related Standards 3.3 The student will apply word-analysis skills when reading.

b) decode regular multisyllabic words

3.4 The student will expand vocabulary when reading.

b) use knowledge of roots, affixes, synonyms, and antonyms to determine the meaning of new words.

c) apply meaning clues, language structure, and phonetic strategies to determine the meaning of new words.

4.4 The student will expand vocabulary when reading.

b) use knowledge of roots, affixes, synonyms, antonyms, and homophones to determine the meaning of new words.

Learning Goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound)
By March of 2019 the student will decode multisyllabic words with 90% accuracy by developing and applying knowledge of roots & affixes in 4.4-5.4 ZPD range grade-level text as measured by weekly running records.
Grade Level Standards Targets 5.4 The student will expand vocabulary when reading.

c) Use knowledge of roots, affixes, synonyms, antonyms, and homophones to determine the meaning of new words.

*Identify the meaning of Greek & Latin affixes

5.8 The student will self- and peer-edit writing for capitalization, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraphing, and Standard English.

j) Use correct spelling of commonly used words.

Specially Designed Instruction Provide explicit instruction in the identification and application of roots, affixes, synonyms, antonyms, and  homophones including syllabication strategies and practice with both decoding and encoding. Given the lack of growth in this area over two years, the intensification of instruction should be increased during 5th grade.


Note the difference between the prior learning goals and the ambitious nature of the proposed fifth-grade learning goal for word analysis.  The prior goals were not specific enough about the student’s multisyllabic decoding needs and lacked specific connection to the standards.  Goals calling for 70% fluency of text a full grade level below the student’s current grade lack the specificity needed to drive instruction and don’t rise to the level of challenge required to close skill gaps.  The prior learning goals did not specify the frequency required for running records, and accuracy is a clearer descriptor for progress measurement.

Conducting running records at least weekly allows the special education teacher to adjust the SDI in a more timely manner.  The revised learning goal makes clear that the path to improved multisyllabic decoding skills will be accomplished by providing explicit instruction in the knowledge and application of roots and affixes.  The specificity provides the connections between the student’s areas of need, the standards, and potential SDI.  The expectation of 90% accuracy with text in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) range of 4.4-5.4 grade-level text by March 2019 is an ambitious plan for starting to close the original almost two-year skill gap that increased in size over the previous grade levels.  It will take this kind of ambitious goal setting and instructional design to close skill gaps and improve outcomes for SWD.

Special education teachers must reach beyond the verbatim language of state standards in order to develop truly individualized and appropriate IEP goals.  The intent of standards-based IEP goals is to use the standards as a foundation for individualized goals, not to list grade-level standards without consideration for the student’s characteristics, response to prior instruction, and a vertical analysis of tasks and skills addressed in the state standards (Alarcon & Luckasson, 2017; Caruana, 2015).  Quality individualized learning goals may be developed by unpacking multiple standards from multiple grade levels or skill areas and then repacking the skills and subskills most critical for each student’s progress.  When teachers engage in this process for learning goal development they will provide a map for SDI that helps students overcome barriers and make progress within the general education curriculum.

For more information about using HLP to develop specially designed instruction (SDI), visit:

High Leverage Practices and Specially Designed Instruction: Powerful Means to Address Students’ Learning Needs and Ensure Positive Academic Outcomes


Alarcon, A. L., & Luckasson, R. (2017). Aligning IEP goals to standards without standardizing: Avoiding the legal risks associated with aligning each goal with an individual content standard. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 30(2), 82-87.

Caruana, V. (2015). Accessing the common core standards for students with learning disabilities: Strategies for writing standards-based IEP goals. Preventing School Failure, 59(4), 237-243. doi:10.1080/1045988X.2014.924088

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 580 U.S. ____ (2017).

Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., & Malone, A. S. (2018). The taxonomy of intervention intensity. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50(4), 194-202. doi:10.1177/0040059917703962

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400 (2004)

McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., Lewis, T., Maheady, L., Rodriguez, J., Scheeler, M. C., Winn, J., & Ziegler, D. (2017, January). High-leverage practices in special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

More, C. M., & Hart-Barnett, J. E. (2014). Developing individualized IEP goals in the age of technology: Quality challenges and solutions. Preventing School Failure, 58(2), 103-109. doi:10.1080/1045988X.2013.782533

Ricconomi, P. J., Morano, S., & Hughes, C. A. (2017). Big ideas in special education: Specially designed instruction, high-leverage practices, explicit instruction, and intensive instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50(1), 20-27. doi: 10.1177/0040059917724412

United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary. (2008). Questions and answers on report cards and transcripts for students with disabilities attending public elementary and secondary schools. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-qa-20081017.html

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