On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, created a new standard for determining whether a student with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) has been provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). In Endrew F., the Court was asked to decide the degree of “educational benefit” a child must receive in order for the school district to have provided a FAPE. The lower court in Endrew F. used the “merely more than de minimus” standard that had been adopted by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected this standard and instead held that in order “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEIA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, No. 15-827, 2017 WL 1066260, at *1 (U.S. Mar. 22, 2017) (emphasis added).

In reaching this decision, the Court reasoned, “[i]t cannot be right that the IDEIA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not.” Id. at *2. Notably, the Court did not reject or overrule Rowley v. Hendrick Hudson School District, the U.S. Supreme Court case that first established a standard for the provision of FAPE. Rather, the Endrew F. Court noted that Rowley “did not provide concrete guidance with respect to a child who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level.” Id. The Court further explained that a child’s IEP need not “aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect.” Id. However, that child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.” Id. The Court went on to state that every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

In setting forth this new standard, the Court rejected the parents’ argument that the IDEIA requires school districts to provide children with disabilities with educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded to children without disabilities.” Id. The Court noted that this standard had been rejected by the Supreme Court in Rowley and that Congress has not materially changed the definition of FAPE since Rowley was decided. Consequently, the Court declined to adopt the higher standard advocated by the parents.

The standard adopted by the Endrew F. Court does not create a bright-line rule. Rather, “[t]he adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.” Id. at *3. This standard appears to be similar to the heightened “meaningful educational benefit” standard, as outlined by the Sixth Circuit Court in Deal v Hamilton County Board of Education. Both Endrew F. and Deal require an analysis of the child’s capabilities and potential for learning to determine the appropriateness of the child’s IEP.

From a practical standpoint, the Endrew F. standard places renewed emphasis on the need for comprehensive evaluations (and reevaluations) of students with disabilities. Without this data, it will be difficult for a school district to demonstrate that a child’s progress is “appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” School districts must also continue to be mindful of the requirement that a student’s IEP goals must align with the needs set forth in the evaluation team report. Additionally, districts should continue to ensure that intervention specialists and related service providers collect data in accordance with each student’s IEP and reconvene IEP teams as necessary based on the data collected.

Christina Peer is a partner and the Chair of the Education Services group of Cleveland-based Walter | Haverfield LLP.