Making Wise Decisions about Accommodations
Reader beware! This month's roundup is on somewhat shaky ground. When it comes to the issue of accommodations for students with LD, common sense is usually what drives our decision-making, and we tend to be quite comfortable (even complacent) granting a wide range of accommodations to support classroom instruction and assessment. So what's the problem? Simply stated, decisions about accommodations should be based on data rather than guesswork and intuition. And we just don't have a lot of data to guide our actions.
What Are Accommodations and What Purpose Should They Serve?
The term “accommodations” refers to adjustments that are made, in either instruction or assessment, that are appropriate or necessary to enable students with special needs to participate fully in school.
- Classroom accommodations make it possible for students to learn, helps them to fully participate in classroom instruction, and enables them to demonstrate their learning.
- Assessment accommodations make it possible for students to demonstrate what they have learned in ways that bypass or circumvent the features of their disability.
And at the risk of stating the obvious, there should be a natural flow between what happens during times of instruction and what happens during periods of assessment. Appropriate accommodations should be viewed as part of the normal cycle of teaching and testing, and not reserved solely for periods of assessment.
The List Goes On and On
There are many accommodations that can be used successfully with students who have learning disabilities. For convenience sake, here are some categories and examples:
- Presentation: repeated directions, reading aloud, revised answer sheet, audio tapes, larger print, fewer items on a page, prompts or cues (such as arrows pointing on the page), highlighted text.
- Response: mark answers in a book rather than on a separate answer sheet, answering questions orally instead of in writing, pointing to answer choices.
- Setting: individual or small group, separate desk or location in the classroom, different classroom, improved lighting, changed acoustics.
- Timing/scheduling: flexible scheduling (such as several sessions vs. one sitting), extended time, allowing for frequent breaks (as needed), changing the order of tasks.
Choosing Accommodations Wisely
Informal decisions about how to help students with LD learn are made all the time. However formal decisions about accommodations are no small matter and should be made by the student's IEP team. The accommodations that are granted to a student should apply not only to classroom instruction (and work done at home), but should inform the kinds of accommodations that are offered during periods of assessment as well. Some points to remember:
- Not every student needs, or will benefit from, extended time. By far the most popular (and often the least labor intensive) accommodation, there is little evidence to suggest that this alone improves performance for students with LD any more than it does for students without LD.
- Match the accommodation with the student's need. The guiding questions to ask are, “What changes need to be made to ensure that the student is on equal footing with students who do not have a disability?” and “Are the chosen accommodations linked directly to the student's learning needs?” And keep in mind that the answers to these questions may be different for times of classroom instruction and during periods of assessment.
- To the extent possible (and appropriate), let the student decide. Accommodations should not be imposed upon a student just because they are included on an IEP (“I don't need to have this test read aloud to me because of all the practice I got in class and for homework.”)
- More is not better when it comes to accommodations. Some research actually suggests that that “over-accommodating” students is not helpful, and may actually depress their performance rather than improve it.
- Practice is the key to mastery. Accommodations are only helpful if the student feels comfortable using them. Extended time or using alternate response formats, for example, are of little help if the student doesn't know how to use them effectively. Accommodations should be integrated into classroom practice before they are applied to assessment situations.
- For the purposes of assessment, be sure that accommodations do not invalidate the test score! If the accommodation changes or replaces the skill that test is supposed to measure, don't do it! The idea here is for the accommodation to facilitate access to the test, and enable the student to measure his/her knowledge, not change the skills that the test is designed to measure.
More Research, Please
There are several research efforts underway to investigate the impact of accommodations on test reliability (the results are consistent and accurate when with repeated uses over time) and validity (the test measures what it says it measures, and so, the score allows you to infer something about the student's skills or knowledge). And given current legislation (IDEA and NCLB), it is increasingly important that we understand the implications of granting accommodations to student with LD and the impact they have on the performance outcomes (including high stakes assessments) that measure student progress and inform instructional practice.
Some Helpful Resources
Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. is the Director of LD Resources & Essential Information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.