When a student qualifies for special education, the school district is required to develop an individual education program or “IEP” for the student. The IEP must include the basis for special education eligibility, measurable goals and objectives, the services, accommodations, and/or modifications required to accomplish the goals, and the type of placement, such as regular education, resource, special day class, etc.
Sometimes, however, the school district will determine that a student has a disability but does not qualify for special education. When this happens, the school district may propose a 504 plan instead of an IEP. Most often this is when the school district believes that the student can be successful with accommodations only, and does not require special education services. Often a 504 plan is offered to students with ADD or ADHD who may be struggling, but are managing to keep up in the classroom. A 504 plan can include such accommodations as extra time, taking tests in an alternative location, and reduced levels of homework. A 504 plan does not provide the same level of procedural protections as an IEP does for students who may engage in impulsive conduct that could lead to disciplinary measures.
A 504 plan works for some students, but is not appropriate for a student who is failing classes due to inattention or who is performing significantly below grade level on standardized tests. Substantial outside support, such as tutoring and homework assistance, can mask the seriousness of the problem and the need for special education services, so be sure the school district knows about the level of outside support when it is making the eligibility determination. One strategy is to try a 504 plan first to see if it helps. If it does not, then that provides a sound basis for insisting on an IEP.