Accommodations, modifications, and alternative assessments may be necessary for a special needs child to succeed while working on materials for learning. A student who cannot read nor write at grade level may be able to understand and participate in discussions about material that is read aloud and taught at the child’s age-appropriate level. A child who cannot recall basic number facts may be able to do grade-appropriate problems using a calculator or working with number facts chart. A student with cerebral palsy may be able to take part in modified physical education with special equipment and carefully chosen exercises.
The terms accommodations and modification are frequently used interchangeably, but they are not identical in their effect on teaching and learning. There are important differences in the meaning as they relate to special needs education. Both terms are included in the federal law, IDEA, which provides children with disabilities equal access to curriculum and ensures an opportunity for success.
Because IDEA is a federal law, it primarily guarantees an appropriate, free, public education. Whether or not a child is taught at home, the public schools are under obligation to make that access available to all school-aged children. Parents are not under obligation to use these services and may opt out.
Accommodations offer alternative ways for students to acquire information or share what they have learned with you. Accommodations do not lower the difficulty level nor expectations for the student’s achievement, although there may be changes in teaching materials used, testing materials, or even in the instructional environment. Educators often make accommodations for individual students informally as they teach, but children with special needs may require more formally documenting the need for specific accommodation through an IEP or a 504 plan.
Parents often misunderstand the purpose in providing accommodations or may not realize that they need to do so. A common concern is, “If I allow him to have that accommodation, then he’ll never learn to do it without the extra support!” A helpful analogy can illustrate how accommodations are a positive part of the child’s educational program. Imagine a child who had suffered eye muscle damage see clearly enough to read without glasses. If the parents denied the glasses to that child, thinking that the child would learn to see without them, then the impact of that choice would likely mean the child could not clearly see reading materials (barring God’s intervention with a miracle!). With the glasses, however, the child could read, play with peers and participate in many enjoyable activities with more independence.
Learning disabilities and other special needs are often just as permanent and limiting as physical handicaps — but because they are “invisible,” it can be difficult to accept the impact that those limitations place upon “normal” learning activities. The child can learn skills that compensate for the limits, and may find skills to strengthen the weaknesses. The use of appropriate accommodations serves to enlarge the scope of possibilities. Accommodations will not make the disability “go away” any more than the refusal to allow accommodations will cause the disability to “go away.”
For example, an accommodation that may falsely give the appearance of “lowering the difficulty level” is allowing directions to be read aloud for a test. Because of the limitations that dyslexia may impose on a child, the granting of “orally given directions” permits that child to really show what he or she has learned instead of simply what can be “read.” The content that is tested for that child may remain as difficult as the content for a “normal reading” student, and just as the braces opened doors for the polio stricken child, the use of accommodations opened opportunities for the dyslexic student.
Modifications are more intensive changes to the difficulty level and /or the quantity of material to be learned. Modifications also may, in fact, change the way material is presented and the nature of testing. Modifications create a different standard for children whose disabilities require more intense adjustments. Modifications are also typically included in the IEP. An example of the modification may be seen in a spelling test that reduces the number of words to be studied.
In making modifications, it is fundamentally important to the parent to make a realistic appraisal of what is the priority in the education of the child. Parents must discern what knowledge, facts, or skills the child will need to fulfill God’s calling upon his or her life. These basic decisions become long-range goals for the child’s educational program, and they serve as a guide for educational decision-making on the daily and long-term basis.
For students with more complex special needs, an alternate assessment may be most appropriate. Alternative assessments measure a different area of skill or concepts than normally used for a given grade level or subject. For example, a fifth grader who is unable to demonstrate knowledge of fractions in computations of mixed numbers using pencil and paper still might be able to demonstrate cutting an apple in half.
Accommodations are adjustments that make children with special needs capable of participation in their regular grade level educational program or to work more closely to that level than would be possible without any accommodations. Once those accommodations are made, however, the standards of achievement remain the same. For example, a student with learning disabilities may be unable to read an assigned textbook, and the accommodations permit the student to listen to a taped version. Once the student has heard the story, however, he or she must take part in all required testing and assigned work.
There are several areas of learning and testing accommodations.
Presentation — how material is presented to the child. Examples include:
- How the test looks — is the layout clear and uncluttered?,
- Increase of the size of type font,
- Repetition of directions,
- Braille, and
- Use of taped books instead of print copy.
Other accommodations may include enlarging worksheets, highlighting key vocabulary terms, or drawing boxes around individual math problems to prevent difficulty with visual tracking.
Responses — how the child demonstrates knowledge. Examples include:
- Allowing the child to mark answers in a book instead of a separate sheet of paper,
- Oral testing vs. written work,
- Short answers instead of essay, and
- Giving non-verbal answers such as pointing to the correct answer choice.
Setting — when and where the student works. Examples include:
- The use of a study carrel,
- Providing a quiet environment,
- Special lighting,
- Background music, or
- Separate room.
Timing / schedules
Extended time, frequent breaks, time of day.
The rate at which new content is presented and the frequency of review. Slower students require more time spent per lesson while gifted students advance more easily and rapidly.
Modifications of Learning Material
Parents should seek to exercise wise stewardship of the learning capabilities of their children with special needs. This can is only be possible when children are taught at their appropriate ability levels — not just at the limits of their disabilities! These decisions must be made on a skill-by-skill basis. A parent should never just choose a set of materials at the child’s “grade level” unless the child’s skills are at that same level! This may mean using taped books (an accommodation) at the dyslexic child’s grade level for a reading activity.
For a child with math dyscalculia, modifications in math may require the fifth grade child (where fractions and percentages are normally introduced) to work on basic arithmetic addition and subtraction (a modification). In effect, the child’s comprehension capability is the guide for curriculum choice in reading, and the limitations in math really do create a legitimate modification from a fifth-grade text to a second grade text. This may require some adjustments as the school year progresses, and parents should not hesitate to revisit their decisions. Simply hanging on to a text because it was expensive is a poor choice for the child. Look online for someone to buy the used book or sell to another home educator rather than continuing with a book that does not fit the child’s need.
Parents who order curriculum packages from correspondence schools need to be fully informed about the actual grade level at which the child is working in EACH area, instead of just ordering everything at the child’s age-appropriate “grade” level.
Many home school parents feel overwhelmed when trying to work with regular textbook materials. Frequently the reading level is inappropriate for the child, in other cases the child seems to be unable to master basic skills in order to advance through the book. Children with processing difficulties may also have to struggle with reading comprehension, and parents are left with the task of adjusting both the rate and difficulty level of material they have selected. It is important that parents of children who struggle with reading make certain the child is able to learn from material that is at the level of their understanding — not at the level of their reading skill. This is done with the use of appropriate accommodations (see above).
While it remains important to strengthen reading skills, parents should not limit the child’s learning progress by only using material he or she can read! For example, the severely dyslexic 10-year-old should not be limited to second grade curriculum content. Modification of the questions in such materials, the worksheets and tests, can be rewritten from (for example) a fifth grade social studies test to an easier reading level using shorter sentences and easier words. This will permit that student to participate in more of the fifth grade level content.
Modifications may require using a different textbook with easier reading difficulty and fewer new concepts included in the material. It is perfectly acceptable for a child with special needs to be working on different grade level material in each area of the curriculum, but these decisions should be documented in an I.E.P. to avoid end-of-the-year problems when it is time to evaluate progress.
Accommodations and Testing
When making decisions to provide accommodations for instruction, parents need to be aware that these decisions may directly affect high-stakes testing. The only accommodations typically permitted on standardized tests are those that are normally used in instruction and included in an IEP. These tests are usually so-called “high stakes tests” because the test results may affect end-of-the-year evaluations and promotion, or other significant educational decisions. For that reason, it is very important to make sure that the child both has an IEP AND that the accommodations and/or modifications normally needed by the child are part of that IEP!
Test publishers usually list allowable, or standard, accommodations that will not alter the validity of that test. The publishers limit the degree to which their test can be changed or the way in which it is administered. This ensures that the test will actually measure what it is supposed to. An inappropriate accommodation for testing is easily recognized when the reading test is read aloud to a dyslexic child. Under these conditions the test results would indicate oral comprehension rather than give a measure of the child’s reading comprehension; and this makes test results invalid.
An educational consultant can help parents learn whether specific accommodations are permitted for tests that the child is scheduled to take. In cases where a publisher lists the accommodations needed for the child as being “non-standard,” the child may still be tested using all their normal accommodations, but those scores may simply not be meaningful to compare the child to a group. The test should still give a fair picture of the child’s performance, but it will not be a fully accurate picture. (*See the Testing section on this website.)
It is difficult for a group test administrator to make some test accommodations for an individual child. Therefore, if a child needs many accommodations to successfully participate at his or her grade level, parents should arrange for one-on-one testing for standardized tests.
Using Alternative Assessments for Special Needs Students at Home
When parents want to find out how much their child has learned, a written test is typically used. For children with special needs, however, alternative assessments are frequently a better choice. Written language, reading, spelling and/or writing, are major limitations for the special-needs child. In providing an alternative to the written assessment, the parent provides the child an opportunity to demonstrate his or her strengths.
The choices for alternative assessments are only limited by parent creativity and imagination. The primary objective is to give the child a chance to demonstrate new learning, integration of ideas, and mastery of new concepts. This can be accomplished by having the child do oral presentations, speeches, model building, art, and demonstrations.
When alternative assessments are used, it is helpful to have a predetermined standard describing what will be evaluated. The individual criteria can be discussed with the child. These can be put on a chart with the performance criteria listed down a column on the left and performance descriptions written across the top expressing what constitutes a poor job, a fair job, a good job, and an excellent job. This grid forms a graph called a “rubric.” The use of a rubric provides a clear indication of what will be graded. It is also extremely helpful because the child knows exactly what is required for an excellent grade. Rubrics can be successfully applied for every subject area. In writing, manuscript or cursive samples may be graded with a rubric that describes the qualities of good penmanship. Written compositions may be evaluated against a rubric listing expected qualities and contents. The development of a rubric sharpens teaching skills and usually motivates higher achievement on the student’s part.
The use of appropriate modifications, accommodations, and alternative assessments is merely treating the child as the unique individual God created him or her to be. While the work of making such changes can appear to be an unending task, as the parent becomes familiar with those troublesome characteristics of educational material and tests, making appropriate changes becomes increasingly second nature.
There are many resources available from which parents can glean helpful ideas. In the Resources section, there are references to many materials that can provide examples and direction for making accommodations and/or modifications that are not overly time-consuming to use.
Meeting Individual Needs in Lesson Planning
Teachers of students with disabilities should be prepared to adapt any or all of the highlighted instructional components. This is a short checklist of questions parents should ask about materials intended for the use of the special needs child.
Presentation materials — Are changes needed in:
- Reading level of difficulty?
- Providing alternative reading material?
- Format: Visual, auditory, multi-sensory?
- Print size?
- Page layout — is there excess visual clutter?
- An overload of text or problems?
- Lack of highlighting, emphasis on key information?
Presentation — Does the child require:
- Advance organizers to benefit from instruction?
- Multi-sensory and/or multi-media presentations?
- Manipulatives for hands on activities?
- Frequent breaks especially for ADD students?
- Pre-teaching of key ideas, vocabulary for poor readers, lower ability, ESL?
- Small group, or one-on-one situation?
Student Response — For the child to demonstrate learning mastery, does he need:
- Advance practice when asked to do an oral reading selection?
- Alternatives to written or oral responses?
- Alternatives to writing?
- More support such as a word bank (list of answer words) or shorter responses?
- Reduced workload?
- Extra time?
- Adapted workbooks (enlarged text, braille, highlighting key material)?
- Math computations support: grids to write answers, fact charts, calculators?
- Increased frequency of review?
Assessment — For the child to demonstrate learning mastery, does he require:
- Oral testing instead of written testing?
- Alternative projects?
- Adaptive technology?
- Adaptations to the written test: e.g. size of print, multiple choice vs. essay, fewer choices in total items, division of test sections with highlighters?