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What’s the difference between the terms in practice?


Accommodations are changes in formats or procedures that enable students to participate readily rather than be limited by disabilities.

  1. They "level the playing field."
  2. Many are shaped by state guidelines.
  3. They are grouped into separate types:
    1. Presentation – how the test looks, size of type or of response bubbles, repetition of directions, having materials read aloud.
    2. Responses – mark answers in the book, use references, point.
    3. Setting – study carrel, special lighting, separate rooms.
    4. Timing/schedules – extended time, frequent breaks.

They typically do not include adjustments in the content, test constructs, nor quantity of material for which the learner is responsible.

Accommodations may be selected for either instruction or testing. A child may require some accommodations because of his limitations and as required by his IEP. Any accommodations should be selected and discussed at an IEP meeting – however, often they are picked beforehand without any discussion with the parents, although discussion at the IEP meeting might focus on whether or not the accommodations give the child a "level playing field."

Accommodations for a specific child should be similar from test to test. Certain ones are rather typical for special needs students, and are commonly used – unless disallowed by the test manufacturer. In cases where the manufacturer does not "allow" the inclusion of the selected accommodations, that child’s scores may not be included in the school system’s submissions for state-wide accountability. Thus, the choices of accommodations must be a balance between giving students optimal opportunity to demonstrate what they know, and the chance that the accommodations they need may keep them from being included in the state-wide assessments they need to get a diploma.


Modifications are more extensive changes of both difficulty level and/or content quantity.


In addition, a new term, "alternate assessment," has become a part of our vocabulary in testing. The meanings can vary from location to location. An "alternate assessment" is one that involves a DIFFERENT "construct" or standard or indication of the child’s learning. The ultimate content being measured may be the same, but the indicators may be different, which means the child is being measured differently.


All three terms – accommodation, modification, and alternate assessment – are part of the IDEA 1997 text. It is necessary to know what each term means and how each affects your child, whatever the child's specific educational needs. The impacts vary for an IEP, a 504 plan, a standard test, or limited English proficiency at all levels of education.

The IDEA's legal language can often confuse the reader who is trying to understand these terms. Test manufacturers offer some help in such cases – they have set specific limitations on the degree to which a specific test can be changed as it is administered, before the results differ too much from the norm group (on which the test was prepared). Excessive changes can render the test results invalid and unreliable if you intend to compare your child with the norm group.

A key idea for testing involves the PURPOSE of the test –

Is the child being assessed against his own previous performance to see what has changed and needs improvement?

Is the child being compared against an absolute measure (criterion) that will indicate what content has been mastered?

Or, is the child to be compared to a group of similar age or grade level?

In summary, we measure to mark progress (from a benchmark level), to certify knowledge has been acquired, to demonstrate mastery, or to compare with other students. Each purpose affects the way in which a specific test or content should be handled. That which is actually measured on a test may suffer alteration if assessment techniques are modified too much.

Alternate assessments are offered under IDEA for students who cannot complete the state's required testing. In Virginia, the current Alternate Assessments for SOL testing are only available to students in the Trainable Mentally Retarded category, and the assessments are a reflection of the specific curriculum they receive in their special education classes.