IEP

The Difference Between Accommodations and Modifications in Special Education

The terms accommodations and modifications are commonly used when children have a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). While the two words might sound similar and often you may see them incorrectly used interchangeably, they have very different meanings.

If you need some clarification on the differences between accommodations and modifications in special education, you’ve come to the right place! I’ve included in-depth descriptions, examples, and other useful resources below.

Everything You Need to Know About Accommodations vs. Modifications

The sections in this guide are based on my formal training, research, and years of first-hand experience in special education.

  • Why Accommodations and Modifications Are So Important
  • Accommodations Explained
  • Modifications Explained
  • Examples of Accommodations in Special Education
  • Examples of Modifications in Special Education
  • Accommodations vs. Modifications: Which is Better?

Why Accommodations and Modifications Are So Important

Before we dive into the definitions, explanations, and comparisons, I want to quickly give you some background information on the importance of these terms. 

Everyone learns differently. The key to success in the classroom is often tied to the attention and support given to each individual student. This statement holds true for children with and without a learning disability.

According to the NCLD, one in five children in the US has a learning disability (LD). Seven in ten children with LD spend 80% of their time in general education classrooms. Inclusion is crucial to both learning and child development. Inclusion continues to be the best option for most students due to the implementation of individualized accommodations and modifications. 

Inclusive education makes it possible for children with different learning abilities to learn, play, and socialize with each other. 

It’s not always obvious how different accommodations or modifications may benefit a particular student. That’s why it’s so important for parents, teachers, school administrators, and therapists to clearly understand the different options.

Accommodations Explained

Accommodations adjust how a student learns. Special education accommodations do not change what students are expected to learn. 

Most accommodations refer to altering an environment, curriculum presentation, or equipment. These changes allow children with a disability to follow a regular course of study and completion of assigned tasks. 

Accommodations help students overcome or work around different learning barriers. Let’s say your child has trouble writing due to a disability. An accommodation can be made for them to give answers orally instead. 

In this scenario, the student is still expected to learn the same material and answer the same questions as everyone else in the classroom. Verbalizing the answers as opposed to writing them down is the only difference. 

Generally speaking, accommodations fall into four main categories:

  • Time Variations — Altering the time allotted for testing, learning, or task completion.
  • Input Variations — Altering the way instructions get delivered to the student.
  • Output Variations — Altering the way students can respond to instructions.
  • Size Variations — Altering the number of items students are required to complete.

Accommodations are put in place to give students with LD equal access to learning and equal opportunities to show what they can do in the classroom. 
Depending on the unique needs of the student, formal and standardized testing scenarios can also include accommodations. But an accommodation does not alter the way a test is scored and does not alter the contents of materials presented.

Modifications Explained

Modifications adjust what students are taught and what they’re expected to learn. The term can be used to describe changes in the curriculum to accommodate the needs of a student with LD.

If a student is unable to comprehend all of the content and materials that an instructor is teaching, modifications can be an appropriate course of action. Instruction level, performance criteria, and content can all be modified based on individual learning abilities. 

Some students may require test questions to be reworded using simpler language. Other students may be given a “pass” or “no pass” grading option, as opposed to traditional number or letter grade scoring. 

Modifications can be applied to formal or standardized testing scenarios as well. Unlike accommodations, a modification can impact the way standardized test results are scored and interpreted. 

Students who need modifications can still be included in general education classes. Some modifications can be presented in the form of an “alternate assignment.” In this situation, classroom tasks, homework, tests, and quizzes would cover different material outside the standard curriculum. 

Examples of Accommodations in Special Education

When it comes to understanding special education terms, most parents, teachers, paras, and school administrators like to see examples. These real-world situations are easy to comprehend and paint a better picture than dictionary definitions.

I’ve spent years working in different environments for special education. So I’ve seen tons of accommodation examples first-hand. 

Let’s take a closer look at accommodation examples in four distinct examples and learning environments:

Accommodation Examples for Classroom Instructions

Classroom accommodations allow students to learn the same materials and meet the same expectations as their peers. 

  • A child with dyslexia may listen to the audio version of a book instead of reading a physical copy. But it’s still the same book that everyone else in the class is reading.  
  • Children who have trouble focusing might have their seats moved closer to the teacher. But they still learn the same materials and complete all of the regular classroom assignments.
  • Sign language interpreters can be used to translate for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

Accommodation Examples for Classroom Tests

Classroom testing accommodations can vary from the accommodations used during instruction.

  • Students might be given more time to complete a test or a quiz.
  • Those who have trouble writing can be given a keyboard to type their answers instead of writing them by hand.
  • If a student has trouble taking notes during class, spell check on a computer could make things easier. However, this wouldn’t be an appropriate accommodation during a weekly spelling quiz.

Accommodation Examples for Standardized Testing

Statewide tests and national tests have different rules than the classroom. But they still allow for certain accommodations.

  • Extended time or no time limits are offered to students with special needs
  • Administrators may allow students to take breaks or extended breaks during a standard exam. 
  • Some standardized tests can be taken on a computer, similar to the accommodations the student is given in classroom tests. 

Accommodation Examples for Music, Art, and PE Class

Accommodations outside of a traditional classroom environment are extremely helpful to some students.

  • In art class, a student could do a task on a computer instead of painting or drawing by hand.
  • Students may be given extra time when learning to play an instrument in music class.
  • Time limits and benchmarks can be eliminated in physical education. Some students wouldn’t be required to run a mile within a certain time frame.

Examples of Modifications in Special Education

I’ve also had plenty of first-hand experience with modifications. I segmented these examples into the same categories from above so you can clearly see the differences:

Modification Examples for Classroom Instructions

Classroom modifications change the curriculum. 

  • Students can be assigned shorter reading assignments.
  • Those with a disability might be given a homework assignment that’s easier than the rest of the class.
  • Students who receive modifications in the classroom are not expected to learn the same material as their peers. 

Modification Examples for Classroom Tests

Similar to the classroom instructions, test modifications usually make the testing contents less complex.

  • Students might only need to study ten words for a spelling test, where the rest of the class is required to study 30 words.
  • Sticking with the spelling test example, a student with LD modifications might be given a completely different list of words from the rest of the class.
  • The regular test might cover four chapters of a textbook. But a student who needs modifications will only be tested on one chapter.

Modification Examples for Standardized Testing

In terms of standardized tests, it’s common for students to take an alternate assessment, which is a state test that includes modifications. Examples of alternate assessments include:

  • Questions that don’t cover the same material as a standard test.
  • A shorter list of questions compared to the regular test.
  • Results can be interpreted differently compared to the expected responses on a statewide test. 

Modification Examples for Music, Art, and PE Class

Similar to accommodations, a modification in these types of classes can really enhance the student’s experience. 

  • PE teachers could reduce the number of laps a student is required to run or eliminate the need for a student to run altogether.
  • Music teachers might not require students to play a certain instrument. The requirement to read music could also be eliminated.
  • An art teacher may not assign any homework to children who require modifications. They might be graded on a “pass” or “no pass” scale instead of given a letter grade on assignments.

Accommodations vs. Modifications – How Do I Choose?!

To be clear, one of these isn’t better than the other. It’s all about finding the best fit for each individual student

In some scenarios, an accommodation is more appropriate than a modification. But modifications are necessary for a wide range of scenarios as well.

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding whether accommodations or modifications are appropriate for your child or student:

  • Can the child participate the same way as their peers?
  • Can they complete the exact same activity as their peers using adapted materials?
  • Can the student complete the task with adapted expectations and adapted materials?
  • Can the student complete the task with intermittent adult assistance?
  • Can the child participate with direct adult assistance?
  • Can they do a similar but different parallel activity?

The same child can be given accommodations in one scenario but modifications in another.

Conclusion

I hope this answered all of your questions about accommodations and modifications in special education. More importantly, I hope this gives you the information needed to make the appropriate decisions for the child or children in your life. Inclusion is important, and both accommodations and modifications make it possible.

Remember, accommodations change how a student learns, and modifications change what a student learns. These can be applied to classroom environments, standardized tests, music class, art class, PE, homework, and everything else in the education system.

Still have questions? Drop a comment or send me a message! I’m more than happy to offer personal help with my knowledge and expertise! 🙂

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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