G.D. v. Swampscott Public Schools, No. 20-2114, 2022 WL 522035, — F.4th —, 80 IDELR 149 (1st Cir. Feb. 7, 2022), involved an eleven-year old with learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a phonological processing disorder. The student was in private school for kindergarten and first grade, and received no special education services.  She then entered the public school system for the 2017-18 school year. She was offered special education services five times a week in a partial inclusion program during the school year, and four times a week the preceding summer.  The parents requested the student be placed in a separate school for children with language-based disabilities, but the public school system rejected the request. The IEP was later amended to place the student in a substantially separate language-based classroom as part of an eight-week extended evaluation. In March 2018, the school system determined that the student was improving in oral reading fluency and other areas and making progress on her IEP goals. The parents disagreed and stated their intention to place the student at the Landmark School and seek reimbursement of tuition. They then filed for due process, contending that the district failed to deliver all the services identified on the IEP, that the student regressed, and that the IEP was not appropriately ambitious and lacked measurable reading goals. The hearing officer called the dispute a close case but concluded that the parents failed to establish that the IEPs were not reasonably calculated to provide free, appropriate public education.

The district court affirmed the result, and the court of appeals affirmed that decision. The court of appeals reasoned that the hearing officer concluded that the IEP goals were appropriate in light of the student’s circumstances. The court emphasized the hearing officer’s finding that the student went from being able to read at a mid-kindergarten level upon entering the school system in August 2017 to being able to read a first-grade-level text by January 2018, and that the student acquired knowledge of word sounds as well as recognition of an increased number of sight words during that time. She also developed some math skills with support. The hearing officer tied the gains the student made, even if they were slow, to the IEP goals and the challenges of not having special education services before entering the public school system in second grade. The parents argued that the student did not progress as demonstrated by her performance in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  Said assessment showed a failure to improve in the public school. But the court stated that the parents did not offer authority that an IEP must be measurable by standardized testing alone to be appropriate, as opposed to other informal means to assess progress.  The court further pointed out that there was no evidence about how much growth in the standardized test scores would be needed to demonstrate effective progress for the student. In addition, the court stated the parents would have the district be bound by the results of standardized testing despite other evidence in the record showing progress. It pointed out the standardized testing measures progress without regard for individualized circumstances, let alone those in the IEP.

The court also rejected the parents’ claims that the district court should have admitted evidence of the student’s rapid gains at Landmark, specifically evidence available only after the conclusion of the due process hearing. The court said that the district court did not err in reasoning that since the IDEA embodies a preference for educating students in general education settings, a comparison of progress in a non-mainstreamed setting did not show a denial of FAPE. Moreover, said the court, the IEP was to be judged in light of the information available at the time the IEP was written.

The First Circuit’s decision is instructive in the importance it places on determining what the student’s circumstances actually are in evaluating whether the IEP goals are appropriate.