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Establishing Baseline Data in an IEP: 3 Steps to Taking a Student’s Performance Temperature

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Establishing Baseline Data IEP


*Key points from Carol Kosnitsky’s blog post, presented by Laura Materi, Frontline Education.

Let’s begin with a metaphor to set the stage for the last component of a well written Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) statement:

When your child says he doesn’t feel well, you take his temperature. He’s got a temperature of 101!  The doctor confirms your child has the flu and prescribes the “specially designed intervention” ― medicine, fluids and bedrest.

You take your child’s temperature every four hours to help you assess if he is getting better. We know that body temperature makes “getting better” measurable and a thermometer is a tried and true method for making this assessment. Now everyone (parent, doctor and child) knows the performance criteria necessary to monitor progress, and agrees it makes sense.

So, how can we use this metaphor to guide practice on collecting baseline data in an IEP in order to set meaningful and measurable goals? Not to be confused with other assessment data obtained through the initial or three year evaluations, baseline data in an IEP is specific to the annual measurable goals to be proposed in the subsequent section of the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Baseline data provides the glue between the PLAAFP and goal writing. To recap the metaphor above:

  • Define the targeted skill the student will achieve (wellness) and define it in observable terms (lower body temperature).
  • Determine what measures this (a thermometer)
  • Collect baseline data (current body temperature).

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#1. Identify Skill or Behavior and Make it Observable

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that IEPs include measurable goals. Measurable goals define what the student will do in observable terms. If you can observe something, you can count it. And if you can count it once, you can count it again and again.

Throughout the PLAAFP, you’ve described the student’s different areas of need, such as reading, writing, regulating, etc. It’s assumed the services and subsequent goals are designed to “improve” or increase” skills in these areas of need.

But how do you measure “improved comprehension” or “increased attention?” To do this, ask, “What will I see the student do if he improved or increased ______?”

While “The student will improve comprehension” is not observable, it can become measurable with further definition: “The student will demonstrate improved comprehension by answering who, what, where, when and why questions.” Another example could be, “The student will demonstrate improved comprehension by describing the main idea and 2 details.”

#2. Find the Right Thermometer

With an observable skill, there are two essential questions to ask when selecting the right thermometer:

Question 1: What dimension of the skill will change? Is the dimension to change connected to frequency? Duration? Accuracy? Latency? Finding the right thermometer is about selecting a tool or data-collection strategy that quantifies the dimension that will change. For example — if you want a student to remain on task for longer periods of time, you know the thermometer will involve documenting time.

Question 2: Can the thermometer be used frequently and repeatedly? In other words, will you be able to take “the skill” temperature frequently? To do this, the thermometer must be easy and quick to administer. Now you can see why many of the assessments used in initial and three year evaluations don’t meet this criterion. The majority of data collection tools or thermometers you’ll use are grounded in “observational data collection.” How many times does the student…? How much longer does the student…? How much sooner can the student…?


All too often, goals tend to be written without baseline data or consideration on how data will be collected throughout the year.  Both federal and state laws require that parents are informed of their child’s progress toward their IEP goals at least as frequently as progress is reported for all students.  When done correctly, how you decide to collect your baseline data in an IEP will be how you will monitor progress throughout the IEP cycle.

#3. Take Performance Temperature

One of the most challenging tasks in goal setting is to project how much growth/progress the student will make as a result of the supports and services they receive. We all know the frustration associated with monitoring progress for an overly ambitious goal. Likewise, we must guard against setting unambitious goals that establish low expectations and contribute to a student’s achievement gap.

The final step of the baseline process is to take the student’s temperature of the skill you want them to achieve by the end of the IEP cycle. This may seem counterintuitive-however, knowing where you start is an essential variable in projecting changes in performance criteria that are both challenging and attainable.

For example, if you want a student to increase their time on task, find a time during the school day when the student is expected to independently work on a task. Record the start time and the time at which the student stops the targeted skill. You may want to take several samples and determine a median score. For example, “During 4 separate opportunities for independent seatwork activities, the student’s median time on task was 2.5 minutes.”

If you’ve described an observable skill and selected the right thermometer, take the temperature. Think about it ― the baseline is the present tense of the goal. You repeat this process for each of the areas of need you have framed throughout the PLAAFP.

A Final Thought on Establishing Baseline Data in an IEP

Remember the line by Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” This shows the importance of goal setting. If you don’t know where you are starting from, anywhere you end can look like progress. This shows the importance of collecting baseline data in an IEP.

I hope you will agree that our expectations for students should be ambitious. Our confidence that we can facilitate meaningful growth in our students must be equally ambitious. Knowing that we can continually take the student’s skill temperature on a frequent basis ensures we can accurately report progress and use data to guide our instructional decision-making. And that’s why including solid baseline data in your PLAAFP statements is so important!

Does your team have an efficient method of collecting baseline data to plan meaningful, measurable goals for each learner? As you review your IEP best practices, consider how Frontline Special Ed & Interventions can help you create stronger IEPs and report on student progress. Learn more