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IDEA 2004: Improving Transition Planning and Results

Written by Candace Cortiella | February 24, 2009

Recent amendments to the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ’04), include several revisions to the requirements for transition planning designed to improve postsecondary results for students with disabilities.

Poor post-school outcomes for students with disabilities and the need for dramatic improvement in this area are not new issues. In submitting its recommendations for the reauthorization of the IDEA, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education reported:

“The Commission finds students with disabilities are significantly unemployed and underemployed upon leaving school compared to their peers who do not have disabilities. Too many students with disabilities leave school without successfully earning any type of diploma, and they attend post-secondary programs at rates lower than their nondisabled peers. Adults with disabilities are much less likely to be employed than adults without disabilities. Unemployment rates for working-age adults with disabilities have hovered at the 70 percent level for at least the past 12 years, which the Commission finds to be wholly unacceptable. Even when employed, too many adults with disabilities who are employed earn markedly less income than their nondisabled peers. These statistics reflect failures in the present systems’ structures We find that the overriding barrier preventing a smooth transition from high school to adult living is the fundamental failure of federal policies and programs to facilitate smooth movement for students from secondary school to competitive employment and higher education.”

Source: A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for
Children and Their Families, July 2002

Seeking to improve upon the unacceptable post-school outcomes for students with disabilities, Congress has provided several new requirements to strengthen transition planning. This article provides an overview of changes to the transition requirements in IDEA 2004. These requirements are effective July 1, 2005.

Better Definition

First, by redefining the term “Transition Services,” the IDEA now states that activities focus on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child to facilitate movement from school to post-school activities. Additionally, the definition has been expanded to include a requirement that the transition services be based on the student’s strengths, as well as their preferences and interests. The process is expected to be “results-oriented” as opposed to the earlier requirement for “outcome-oriented,” signaling a clear intent to ensure that the process includes activities designed to produce success for the individual.

Clear Starting Point

Current requirements regarding the age at which transition planning should begin are somewhat ambiguous – some activities at 14 and others at 16. IDEA ’04 has established one clear starting age requirement for the start of transition planning. IEP Teams must now include transition planning in the first IEP that will be in effect when the child is 16 years of age. Of course, IEP Teams are still free to determine that planning should begin earlier for a student.

Improved Planning

IDEA ’04 expands the requirements for transition planning from a statement of needed transition services to:

  • Development of appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills;
  • Development of a statement of the transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals.

Since the new planning requirements include “goals,” schools will also need to report to parents on the child’s progress toward meeting their transition goals.

Schools continue to be responsible for bringing in representatives from other agencies, such as rehabilitative services, to be part of the transition planning process. Such agencies may also be responsible for the delivery of some of the services needed by the student. Should other agencies fail to provide the agreed upon services, schools must find alternative ways to meet the transition objectives for the student.

The requirement to notify the student, at least one year in advance, of his/her rights that will transfer to the student upon reaching the age of majority is retained. It is an important juncture in a student’s life, and parents should fully understand some of the options available to them at this point. In most states, the age of majority is 18, but there are exceptions.

New Performance Summary

IDEA ’04 creates a new requirement for schools that is sure to help students with learning disabilities. Since schools are not required to conduct an evaluation before terminating special education services for students due to graduation from secondary school with a regular diploma or due to exceeding the age for services in their state, students with LD are often left without the necessary documentation of their disability that is required to access supports and services in post-school activities, such as higher education.

Now, schools must provide a “Summary of Performance” to students whose special education eligibility is terminating due to the circumstances mentioned above. This new “summary” must include information on the student’s academic achievement and functional performance and include recommendations on how to assist the student in meeting his/her postsecondary goals. Congress intended for this “summary” to provide specific, meaningful, and understandable information to the student, the student’s family, and any agency, including postsecondary schools, which may provide services to the student upon transition. While schools are not required to conduct any new assessments or evaluations in order to provide the “summary,” students and their parents should expect that the information provided in the summary is adequate to satisfy the disability documentation requires under other federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

All in all, these changes and additional requirements should help increase collaboration and improve the individualization of transition planning, resulting in enhanced post-school outcomes for students.

Additional Resources

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition:
Key Provisions on Transition: IDEA 1997 compared to H.R. 1350 (IDEA 2004)

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition Parent Brief:
Age of Majority: Preparing Your Child for Making Good Choices


Candace Cortiella’s work as director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. She is also a member of NCLD’s professional advisory board. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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