Writing the IEP Goal Mastery Criteria

Categories: Data

There are certain topics that I just can’t help but jump on a soapbox about. Once you get me talking, it’s hard for me to stop. IEP goal mastery criteria is one of those topics. This isn’t because I absolutely love writing IEP goals. This is because I see the mastery criteria frequently mishandled. It’s often an after thought. It’s not logical or thought out. The problem here is that if we don’t have a real mastery criteria that makes sense – how will we know when are student has mastered that concept? We too often assume mistakenly that a concept is mastered and that can cause major problems down the road. All of the skills we are teaching, build on each other. So a half mastered skill will continue to cause difficulty for a student. 

Why I’m not into the 80% mastery criteria:

We love an 80% mastery. It makes us feel safe. It’s not far out there or too hard to achieve. It’s good but not crazy. Now I’m not saying that 80% never works for a mastery criteria but I am saying it doesn’t ALWAYS work. And I too often see that 80% slapped on the end of every IEP goal like a free gift with purchase. Let’s put the 80% mastery criteria into perspective. 80% correct means 1 out of every 5 is wrong. That’s a lot. 

How should we approach writing mastery criteria? 

Your mastery criteria shouldn’t be an afterthought. Spending time considering an appropriate mastery criteria right away will set your student up for success and save you time in the long run. Goals that are well written with a quality mastery criteria equate to better more effective instruction for the student. Because, when you complete that goal – you will know that real mastery has been achieved. 

There are three questions to ask yourself when writing an IEP goal and selecting a mastery criteria:

1. What does mastery of this skill really look like? 

Now get big picture for me. Think beyond the child. Think about the skill. What does true mastery of this skill look like? If I told that Johnny has mastered letter identification, what would that mean to you? That Johnny knows some of the letters? All of the letters? All of the time? Some of the time? Think about why you are teaching this skill. What bigger skill does this lead to? For letter identification, it leads to the bigger skill of decoding words and reading comprehension. Well, to accomplish those things – you are going to need to know all of your letter, all of the time. 

Don’t be scared of a 100% mastery criteria. To be a reader, you need to know your letters 100% of the time. The biggest worry I hear is, “What about human error?” Yes, of course all humans (including our students) make mistakes. Writing a 100% mastery criteria doesn’t mean you aren’t accounting for human error. You are unlikely to write a mastery criteria that says “Johnny will XYZ with 100% accuracy for the rest of his life.” No. We want to see 100% for a certain, sustained time period to assume mastery and understand. Johnny will verbally say 20 letters on a flashcard or in a book with 100% accuracy on 3 consecutive opportunities. For that goal, Johnny can still make mistakes. But we aren’t going to move on to the next skill until we see a short time period with no mistakes. 

2. What timeline do I have to accomplish this goal?

Yes, we have our annual IEP deadline but think about the details. When is winter break? When is summer break? Think about other contributing factors that the success of the goal. Has the student been having some major behavioral challenges? Frequent medication changes? Even if you want to set the lofty, high expectation goal of 100% mastery – you don’t need to necessarily accomplish that this year. Maybe you want Johnny to learn 10 letters to 100% accuracy this year and the rest of the alphabet next year. 

3. How will I collect data on this goal?

Beyond what does mastery really look, the 80% mastery criteria bugs me because that isn’t how we teach or collect data. I can’t quickly do the math in my head on what 11 correct out of 13 possible is. I also don’t know if 80% is in regards to 5 problems or 50 problems and that’s a big difference. My recommendation is to plan out how you will be collecting data on the goal and then write the mastery criteria in a way that aligns with that data collection procedure. If you are taking frequency data, then the mastery criteria can be something like “9 out of 10 possible trials” or “10 out of 10.” Then you know how many trials or questions you need to collect data on and can immediately tell how close you are to mastery while you are teaching. 


  1. What is the set number on the data sheets mean? Thanks

  2. Which set of stimuli you are using. So – make a list of the different groups of stimuli – for example, if you are working on body part identification, set 1 may be an arm, leg, head, and neck, set 2 may be the nose, ear, hair, and stomach, etc. The set indicates the exact examples.

  3. Thank you so much for this I post your information all over my moms of special-needs social media pages! You can only imagine how confusing it is when your child is not progressing at grade level and they keep passing them on in the gap gets bigger and bigger and they continue to write these goals with 80% mastery. It’s so important with kids on the spectrum to be a chief something with 100% accuracy before they move onto the next scale but because they don’t write IEP‘s like this it’s like a ladder and they keep breaking the first step and they’re never climbing forward. You are an absolute blessing! I’m a huge believer in ABA therapy my twins of had it for five years now. I wish we would see more BCBA’s in the schools —it’s really upsetting!!! They have social workers writing behavior plans! It’s a known fact that ABA therapy it’s one of the best tools for kids with autism yet school districts don’t hire them —how can we get this changed? Added on as an accommodation IEP? And honestly from a teacher perspective why don’t they?

  4. Hi Dawn! Thank you so much for following and so glad to hear my resources have been helpful for you! That is so great that ABA has been helpful for your twins. Change happens through advocacy! Keep asking and advocating! We are starting to see more BCBAs in school but it’s still new for many people!


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