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Does My Student Need an IEP or a 504?

Understanding These Special Needs Education Programs

By Melissa Wright

The key to determining if a student needs an IEP or a 504 is based on how their disability impacts their academics. If a student is below grade level, an IEP (individualized education program) is needed because the disability interferes with their academic progress. If the child is on grade level, a 504 plan (section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) would be a better fit.

What Is an IEP/504?

“An IEP is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This Federal Law legally requires public schools to develop an IEP for every student with a disability who is found to meet the requirements for special education,” (

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. Named for this legislation, a 504 plan is a plan developed at the school level to customize a student’s learning environment to meet their specific needs,” (

According to an article entitled, “504 Plan Versus IEP: A Guide for Parents” by Sally Kassab, a substantial difference between a 504 
and an IEP is “the data collection piece and who is servicing the student. The biggest difference between the IEP and the 504 is the extensive services offered,” (

IEP/504 Learning Environments

The IEP sets learning goals and describes the services that the school will provide to meet a student’s needs, and the progress on these must be tracked. The students are placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which can be self-contained classes, small group classes, team taught classes, or consultative services such as speech, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

The IEP describes how the student will participate in general education classes, school activities, and standardized tests. Students can also receive adaptive technology. The IEP must be updated annually and includes a special education teacher, case manager, general education teacher, a specialist who can interpret test results, and the child’s parent(s).

Accommodations for students with a 504 plan differ because they are made in the general education classroom setting, which are usually serviced by the general education teacher. The plan is not as extensive for a 504 as it is for the IEP, and data is not necessarily collected.

IEP/504 Meetings

Attending IEP or 504 meetings can be a bit intimidating. Parents may bring in therapists, advocates, or anyone else who can help in the process. As an important part of the IEP or 504 team, nothing can be done without a parent’s approval.

After introductions at the start of the meeting, parents will be asked if they received their rights and if they have any questions. The Parents’ Rights document is long and has a lot of legal jargon, so it’s important to take this opportunity to ask questions about anything that isn’t clear.

During the meeting, the student’s present level of performance (PLP) is also discussed. Academic levels and behavior information are based on class performance and test data. The student’s strengths and weaknesses are then presented. Based on these findings, goals and accommodations are designed to help them be more successful.

Next, necessary accommodations and modifications are outlined. It should be noted that accommodations don’t change the level of work a student receives. Examples of accommodations include repeated instructions, breaking down a large assignment into smaller ones, or cutting down the number of questions or math problems that are assigned.

If modifications must be made, the level of work a student receives will be affected. Modifications are also key to determining the student’s classroom setting, which will be the least restrictive environment where the student can successfully work on their goals.

For a student on a 504 plan, only necessary accommodations are provided because the student is on grade level and does not need academic goals.

For a student on an IEP, academic goals are designed to work on their deficiencies, which must be prescribed based on their PLP. These goals must be measurable. For example, a goal requiring a student to be more respectful in class is great, but there must be ways of measuring how that is being accomplished. Goals must also be appropriate, attainable, and fit the student’s needs. So, if a child cannot write a complete sentence, a five-paragraph essay would not be a suitable goal.

The IEP and 504 plan processes can be arduous, but they ensure that schools are held accountable for a student’s educational needs and success. Parents are their child’s best advocates, so it’s important for them to ask questions and speak up during these processes to ensure their student gets the services, accommodations, and/or modifications that are necessary for them to thrive.