United States: Supreme Court Increases School Standards For Students With Disabilities

Last Updated: March 31 2017
Article by Scott D. Schneider

Today, in a unanimous decision crafted by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court decided that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide a heightened level of educational benefits for children with disabilities. This new and heightened standard will impact the crafting of individualized education programs (IEPs) for those students.

Although a lower appeals court believed that school districts would satisfy the IDEA if they offered the student an IEP that provides a benefit that is "merely more than de minimis," the Supreme Court rejected this standard in favor of a "markedly more demanding" standard holding that IDEA "requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." The decision is likely to require a rethinking of the benefits to disabled students provided by public school districts across the country, and is expected to lead to increased litigation challenging the provision of disability benefits provided by those schools (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District).

Background Facts: Was The IEP Good Enough?

Endrew F., known as "Drew" for the purposes of the litigation, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. His autism affects his cognitive functioning, language and reading skills, and his social and adaptive abilities. He attended public school in Douglas County, Colorado, from preschool through fourth grade. Each year he received special education services, including IEPs, tailored to meet his needs.

The IDEA requires any public school receiving federal funding to ensure all children receive a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE), and schools satisfy this requirement by developing and implementing IEPs for students with disabilities. Typically the IEP is a detailed written document describing the student's educational goals for the year and establishing a plan to achieve those goals.

Drew's parents were not satisfied with the IEP the Douglas County School District developed for Drew at the beginning of his fifth grade year. They believed it was too similar to past IEPs developed for him, which they did not believe resulted in any meaningful progress and did not provide him with FAPE. They pointed to the fact that Drew's behavioral problems escalated each year and reached a peak in fourth grade. That year was especially rocky for Drew, as the school reported he climbed over furniture and other students, hit things, screamed, ran away from school, and twice removed his clothing and went to the bathroom on the floor of the classroom.   

When the school did not address the concerns lodged about the IEP, Drew's parents withdrew him from the District school and enrolled him in a private institution designed for students with autism. However, they also brought a claim against the District seeking reimbursement for their private school tuition. After a lengthy administrative hearing, an administrative law judge denied their claim. Drew's parents then turned to federal court and sought review of the decision, but the court rejected their lawsuit. They appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also rejected their claim. Finally, they took their case to the highest court in the country, which issued its ruling today.

SCOTUS Sets New Heightened Standard

At issue for the Supreme Court was whether the District's plan was reasonably calculated to enable Drew to receive a "free appropriate public education" as required by IDEA.  The District argued that it met this standard by creating a basic floor of opportunity for the disabled child, providing individualized services sufficient to provide him with some level of educational benefit. The District pointed to the fact that it interacted with Drew's parents frequently to update them on his status and progress, scheduled an autism specialist and a behavioral specialist to meet with Drew's IEP team, and – perhaps most importantly – reported some level of past progress each year that it developed an IEP for Drew.

While conceding that Drew was not necessarily thriving at the District, it argued that the IDEA does not require that public schools do "whatever is necessary" to ensure the student achieve a particular level of ability and knowledge. Instead, the District argued that the statute calls for a much more modest goal: the creation of an IEP reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress.

The District contended that requiring anything more would create ambiguities that would invite increased litigation and, in effect, place decisions on individual education matters into the hands of judges, who are not qualified to render such judgments. This increased litigation would, in turn, rob school districts of significant resources necessary to educate all students in their districts.

The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, scrapping the "merely more than de minimis" standard that merely requires evidence of "some" progress for an IEP to satisfy federal education law. Instead, Justice Roberts, writing for a unanimous court, concluded that compliance with IDEA requires schools to "offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." The Court noted that for children "fully integrated in the regular classroom," the IEP should be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Put another way, "for most children, a FAPE will involve integration in the regular classroom and individualized special education calculated to achieve advancement from grade to grade."

For a child who cannot be "fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level," the Court acknowledged that, while "grade-level advancement" may not be the appropriate measuring stick for compliance, the child's "educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances." According to the Court, "every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." 

This broad, individualized standard for children who cannot reasonably attain grade-level advancement will seemingly require schools to increase the services offered as part of their IEPs. It will likely invite considerable litigation against schools as lower courts flesh out its application in a variety of specific contexts. 

What Does This Mean For Public Schools?

The only educational institutions affected by today's ruling are public schools receiving federal funding and subject to the IDEA. Up until now, a school district could feel confident that it was satisfying federal education law if it developed an IEP reasonably calculated to guarantee some educational benefit. The measure and adequacy of an IEP would only be determined as of the time it was offered to the student, and there would be no "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" to look to the actual success of the student in reviewing the adequacy of the plan. The question of the student's actual progress was rarely examined, and if so, all that was required was "some" amount of progress to meet the IDEA standard. That day is no more.

From now on, however, for students who are fully integrated into the classroom, schools will be required to provide enhanced services not only designed to provide some benefit, but that are reasonably calculated to keep track with grade progress. For those who cannot be fully integrated into the classroom, services must be designed such that the educational program is "appropriately ambitious in light of [the student's] circumstances." While this standard was partially designed to iron out the purported ambiguity of the previous standard, it also has inherent ambiguities which, when coupled with the enhanced requirements for public schools, will likely lead to significant litigation and costs in this area over the next several years.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Scott D. Schneider
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.