Many students require educational support to be successful in school, and these educational supports are part of differentiated education. Fairness and equality are not always the same thing, and teachers who differentiate are working to help all students become successful learners by meeting their individual needs.
Educational supports include changes in the classroom environment, different instructional materials and equipment, alternate methods of instruction and evaluation, and different ways to complete classroom assignments and homework. Supports are provided through classroom accommodations and modifications.
It’s easy to get confused about what it means to have a modification and what it means to have an accommodation. Both are ways of providing educational support to students, but the expectations and the outcomes are very different.
A modification is a change in what the student is taught and what the student is expected to learn. The content of the curriculum and the level of instruction are at a lower level. When a student receives modifications, that student is not working on grade level. Modifications are reserved for students with significant disabilities who receive special education services.
For example, students with intellectual disabilities are often placed in classrooms with other students of the same age. Teachers differentiate the instruction for those students by modifying the curriculum – changing it. Those students are not expected to master all the skills or do all the work to the same standard as the other students. Examples of modifications include giving a student a different spelling list, using a lower level reading book, giving different homework assignments, or grading on a different scale. A student with disabilities benefits from exposure to the curriculum, participation with peers, and instruction at a developmentally appropriate level.
An accommodation is an instructional or environmental change that allows a student to successfully understand and respond to the regular curriculum. Examples of accommodations include preferential seating in the classroom, extended time on tests, implementation of a behavior plan, and oral testing in science and social studies. The student is still expected to know the same material and do the same assignments as the other students, but the accommodations allow alternate ways to learn and respond.
Let’s say there are two disabled students in fifth grade – one with a visual impairment and one with an intellectual disability. The student with the visual impairment is expected to progress through the fifth grade curriculum and master the skills. He may need large print books, magnifiers, or a special computer, but those accommodations help him successfully access and respond to the regular fifth grade curriculum. The student with the intellectual disability is expected to participate in the fifth grade curriculum at a developmentally appropriate level. He may need a different spelling list, different reading assignments, and different tests, but those modifications help him participate in class and be exposed to the fifth grade curriculum.
In general, students with milder learning problems receive accommodations rather than modifications, because they can master grade level material if they are given appropriate educational supports. This is called “leveling the playing field”. Students with significant disabilities are taught a modified curriculum – “changing the playing field”.
IEP’s and 504 plans are legal documents that outline the educational supports that are available to an individual student with a disability. The accommodations and modifications listed in these documents are obligations – they must be provided at school. Students can be accommodated on the End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests, but those tests cannot be modified. Students who are on a modified curriculum must still take the regular state test, with accommodations, at their grade level. (The only exception is for children with severe disabilities who are placed in separate special education classes.)
Many students need regular classroom accommodations at some time and in some way during their school career. Accommodations are an integral part of differentiated education – just plain old good teaching. Modifications are different because they change what the student learns and what is expected from that student, so the long-term outcome is educational performance below grade level.
Modifications may be appropriate for students with significant disabilities, but not for students who are capable of mastering the material.
Parents and teachers must have appropriately high expectations for all students. For some, meeting those expectations requires accommodations. For others, appropriate expectations require modifications. Decisions about accommodations and modifications must be made carefully because the consequences can be significant.