Adapted from Jung, L. A. (2017). In providing supports for students, language matters. Educational Leadership, 74(7).
The adaptations that teachers make to the curriculum and assessments on a daily basis can be classified into two categories: accommodations and modifications. Rarely, though, are educators compelled to define which type of support was provided. Even on IEP forms there is often a global prompt to list the “accommodations/modifications” that a student needs. But the difference between these two categories is significant and has important implications for instruction, intervention, and assessment.
What are accommodations?
Accommodations are adaptations that provide access to the general curriculum but do not fundamentally alter the learning goal or grade level standard. These supports “level the playing field” (Freedman, 2005, p. 47). Within the context of assessment, accommodations are support for a skill that is different from the skill being measured. Take for example a science assessment. The purpose of the assessment is to determine the student’s level of mastery on a number of science standards. Support of any skill or behavior, then, other than with the science standards is an accommodation. We may have a student to respond orally if there are significant needs in the student’s writing that affect the quality of response. The student may need additional time or a separate testing environment if test anxiety is a factor. An adult may read the questions to the student if there is difficulty with reading. Each of these adaptations is an accommodation because each one supports a skill that is different from the science standards being measured and reported.
What are modifications?
Modifications are changes to the curriculum and assessments that do fundamentally alter the learning goal or grade level expectation. Unlike accommodations that simply level the playing field, modifications “change the game” (Freedman, 2005, p. 48). Modifications are support to the very skill that is being measured. Let’s consider a mathematics example. Students in the class are working on algebraic problems that require multiplication of fractions. One student who needs support is working below grade level in math and is learning multiplication with whole numbers. The student’s assessment does not include the grade-level algebraic problems that require multiplication of fractions. Instead, the assessment includes whole number multiplication problems and one-step algebra problems requiring addition and subtraction. The student’s team determined this is the appropriate change to be made, and it is a comparably-rigorous skill for the student who needs support. Although the adapted skill is just as difficult for this student as the grade-level skill is for students who do not need support, what is being measured has been changed. The math skill being measured is what is being supported. This is a modification.
Why does the distinction matter?
When teachers provide accommodations and modifications, they are differentiating to give students the support they need to progress. Why does it matter, then, what the supports are called? At first glance, the need to distinguish the terms may seem trivial. But because the nature of adaptations is entangled in issues of measurement, the distinction is necessary in order to measure and report progress accurately. Measurement validity and grading accuracy both depend upon our knowing which type of support was given.
Accommodations play an important role in ensuring we have measurement validity—that we are actually measuring what we intend to measure. If a student fails to perform well because of test anxiety, for example, we cannot say the student did not understand the content. Instead, we have to acknowledge we did not with validity measure what that student knew. We must, to the greatest extent, remove the anxiety and get new information about what the student knows. This applies to any student and any external influence. What makes the influence external? Difficulty with any skill other than the one explicitly being measured and reported with this task.
Modifications change what we measure. We must be able to identify modifications and note them as such to provide an accurate account of what the student knows or is able to do. Without making such a distinction, the result is often “unintended modifications.” That is, we intended to provide support, but we didn’t recognize it was a modification that changed what we measured, and then we evaluated that work as if it were grade-level work. Grading this student on the level of work she is able to complete is best practice, but we must note that the grade is based on a modified expectation, both on her report card and on the permanent record or transcript (e.g., Jung, 2017, Jung & Guskey, 2012). Not making this notation implies the student’s performance was measured against grade-level criteria, which is not accurate.
Because the definition of accommodations and modifications includes the context of what is being measured, this means that no adaptation is inherently an accommodation or modification. Every single time, it depends upon what is being measured. Accurate data from our assessments is the foundation for making critical instruction, intervention, referral, and placement decisions for students who need support. Because issues of adaptations and measurement are inseparable, it is necessary that we understand and appropriately document the types of support being provided in order to measure with validity, grade with honesty, and support all learners to grow and succeed.
Freedman, M. K. (2005). Grades, report cards, etc. … and the law. Boston, MA: School Law Pro.
Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Hamlett, C. L., Hope, S. K., Hollenbeck, K. N., Capizzi, A. M., Craddock, C. F., & Brothers, R. L. (2006). Extending responsiveness-to-intervention to math problem solving at third grade. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38, 59–63.
Jung, L. A. (2017). In providing supports for students, language matters. Educational Leadership, 74(7).
Jung, L. A. (2017). A Model for Differentiated Assessment and Grading. ASCD Student Growth Works. Retrieved online: https://www.studentgrowth.org/2017/05/17/differentiatedgrading/
Jung, L. A. & Guskey, T. R. (2012). Grading exceptional and struggling learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Torgesen, J. K. (2002). The prevention of reading difficulties. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 7–26.