FAPE is an acronym that stands for free appropriate public education.  A cornerstone of IDEA, our nation’s special education law, is that each eligible child with a disability is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet the child’s unique needs and that prepares the child for further education, employment, and independent living.

Defined in IDEA at | 34 CFR §300.17, as follows:

300.17 Free appropriate public education.

Free appropriate public education or FAPE means special education and related services that—

(a) Are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;

(b) Meet the standards of the SEA [State Education Agency], including the requirements of this part;

(c) Include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and

(d) Are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of §§300.320 through 300.324.

OSEP’s Dear Colleague Letter on FAPE (2015, November 16)

Online at:  https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/guidance-on-fape-11-17-2015.pdf

About the Dear Colleague Letter

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) released this Dear Colleague Letter(DCL) (1) to provide state and local educational agencies (SEAs/LEAs) with information to help them meet their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in developing individualized education programs (IEPs) for children with disabilities. In particular, the Department stressed the importance of:

  • holding high expectations for children with disabilities;
  • ensuring that children with disabilities have meaningful access to the academic content standards set by their state; and
  • aligning each child’s IEP with the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.

The Connection Between FAPE and the IEP

As OSEP’s Dear Colleague Letter states: “Under the IDEA, the primary vehicle for providing FAPE is through an appropriately developed IEP that is based on the individual needs of the child.”  (Emphasis added)

Access to the General Education Curriculum

One of the main points OSEP emphasized in its DCL on FAPE is that schools, school districts, and states must ensure that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum, the same curriculum that’s used with students who do not have disabilities. That curriculum is typically aligned with the state’s academic content standards for what students are to learn and be able to do at each grade level, kindergarten-grade 12.

If students with disabilities are to be held to high learning standards, their IEPs must be developed with the state academic content standards firmly in mind.

Aligning Student IEP Goals with State Standards for Learning

The DCL on FAPE includes an excellent description of how an IEP Team might approach aligning a student’s annual learning goals with the state-set academic standards for the student’s enrolled grade. The IEP process can include the team asking and answering questions such as:

  • What are the state’s standards for student learning at this student’s enrolled grade?
  • What are the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance?
  • How does the student’s disability impact his or her learning, especially learning of academic content?
  • What gaps exist between the set standards and the student’s present levels?
  • What annual goals are indicated for the student, given those gaps?
  • What supports (special education, related services, supplementary aids and services, modifications and accommodations) does the student need to work toward those annual goals and learn the expected academic content and skills?

The IEP that emerges from this approach is a standards-based IEP that guides the free appropriate public education that a student with disabilities then receives.

Resources on Standards-Based IEPs

Need more information on how to develop a standards-based IEP? We’ve listed several resources below, including helpful tools developed by three states.

Understanding the Standards-Based Individualized Education Program (IEP)
An 11-page Advocacy Brief from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Standards-Based IEPs: What You Need to Know
Available in:

English | https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/standards-based-ieps-what-you-need-to-know

Spanish | https://www.understood.org/es-mx/school-learning/special-services/ieps/standards-based-ieps-what-you-need-to-know

Content Standards: Connecting Standards-Based Curriculum to Instructional Planning
Teachers are required to implement the adopted content standards and to make the connection between standards-based curriculum and the planning and designing of lessons to ensure that students meet expected content standards. This IRIS module serves as a basic guide for the process (estimated completion time: 2.5 hours).

Developing Standards-Based IEPs and Determining Appropriate Instructional Accommodations
A 60-slide PowerPoint slideshow and training in PDF (651 kb), from the Georgia Department of Education.

Standards-Based IEPs | From the Virginia Department of Education
A wealth of resources, including a guidance document, online training and PowerPoint presentations, and skill worksheets that identify VA standards at each grade level K-12 in math and English language arts, examples of measurable goals in a standards–based IEP, and more.

Developing Standards-Based IEP Goals and Objectives: A Discussion Guide
A 12-page discussion guide (PDF, 523 kb) from the Minnesota Department of Education, designed to help IEP teams develop standards-based IEP goals and objectives.