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Issue Brief

Examining Current Challenges in Secondary Education and Transition

January 2002 Vol. 1, Issue 1

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities in High School

By Martha Thurlow

Issue: Fewer students with disabilities in middle schools and high schools use accommodations than students with disabilities in elementary schools.

Defining the Issue

Accommodations are changes in materials or procedures that provide access to instruction and assessments for students with disabilities. They are designed to enable students with disabilities to learn without the impediment of their disabilities, and to show their knowledge and skills rather than the effects of their disabilities. While there is some controversy surrounding terminology (e.g., accommodations vs. modifications) and about the appropriateness of certain assessment accommodations (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1999; Thurlow & Wiener, 2000), in general there is an acceptance of the need for some changes in instruction and assessment for students with disabilities. Examples of common instructional and assessment accommodations are shown in Table 1.

There is nothing about students with disabilities, nor about instruction and assessment that would suggest that the number of students with disabilities using accommodations should change as they progress through school. Are there other things occurring that might affect the number of students receiving accommodations? Are there constraints on the provision of accommodations that can be alleviated to ensure that all middle school and high school students who need accommodations receive them?

What We Know

Legal Considerations

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized in 1997, accommodations (and modifications) in administration were addressed. In Section 300.347 on Individual Education Program (IEP) content, IDEA states that there needs to be --

. . . a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child --

  • To advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals;
  • To be involved and progress in the general curriculum;
  • To participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and
  • To be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in this section.

Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(5): 1414(d)(1)(A)(vii)

Section 300.342 of IDEA also states that the IEP must be in effect at the beginning of each school year so that each teacher and provider is informed of "the specific accommodations, modifications, and supports that must be provided for the child in accordance with the IEP [Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(2)(A) and (B), Pub. L. 105-17, sec. 201(a)(2)(A), (C)].

In addition to addressing accommodations and modifications in instruction, the Final Regulations for IDEA state that for assessments, the IEP for each child with a disability must include a statement of

Any individual modifications in the administration of state or district-wide assessments of student achievement that are needed in order for the child to participate in the assessment

The term "accommodations" is also used in Section 300.138, which indicates that --

The state must have on file with the Secretary information to demonstrate that -- (a) Children with disabilities are included in general state and district-wide assessment programs, with appropriate accommodations and modifications in administration, if necessary [Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(17)(A)]

None of the language of the law indicates that the number of students with disabilities who need accommodations will change as students get older and move from one level of schooling to the next, although the specific accommodations that students need may change over time (Elliott & Thurlow, 2000).

Table 1. Examples of Instructional and Assessment Accommodations*

Instructional Accommodations


  • Alternative assignments
  • Substitute materials with lower reading levels
  • Fewer assignments
  • Decrease length of assignments
  • Copy pages so students can mark on them
  • Provide examples of correctly completed work
  • Early syllabus
  • Advance notice of assignments
  • Tape-recorded versions of printed materials


  • Highlight key points to remember
  • Eliminate distractions by using a template to block out other items
  • Have student use a self monitoring sheet
  • Break task into smaller parts to do at different times
  • Use study partners whenever reading or writing is required
  • Secure papers to work areas with tape or magnets
  • Present information in multiple formats
  • Use listening devices

Assessment Accommodations


  • Study carrel
  • Special lighting
  • Separate room
  • Individualized or small group


  • Extended time
  • Frequent breaks
  • Unlimited time


  • Specific time of day
  • Subtests in different order


  • Repeat directions
  • Larger bubbles on multiple-choice questions
  • Sign language presentation
  • Magnification device


  • Mark answers in test booklet
  • Use reference materials (e.g., dictionary)
  • Word process writing sample


  • Special test preparation techniques
  • Out of level test
Reprinted with permission from Boxes 3.2 and 3.3 in Thurlow, M.L. Elliott, J.L., & Ysseldyke, J.E. (1998). Testing students with disabilities: Practical strategies for complying with district and state requirements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Definitional Considerations

"Accommodation" is just one of many terms that have been used to indicate a change in instructional or assessment materials or procedures. Another frequently used term, "modification," is generally (but not always) used to refer to a change in which scores produced are invalid or otherwise not comparable to other scores. IDEA uses both "accommodation" and "modification in administration," but intends that the terms be viewed as comparable and inclusive. As stated in a memorandum from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), "the terms as used in the statute and regulations are not intended to correspond with the evolving usage of these terms in the field of assessment . . . . 'modifications in administration' should be viewed as a general term that would include both accommodations and modifications, as they are commonly used in assessment practice" (Heumann & Warlick, 2000, p. 8).

Research Considerations

Research on accommodations has increased dramatically in recent years, due in part to an infusion of funding from OSEP, but also due to dramatic increases in state efforts to include students with disabilities in their assessments, along with the need to study the potential effects of certain accommodations on test results (see Thurlow & Bolt, 2001). Most of this research has focused on assessment accommodations and their effects (cf. Tindal & Fuchs, 1999), rather than on the extent to which students are using accommodations in instruction and assessment.

Survey research gives some indication of the extent to which accommodations are used during assessments. In a survey of approximately 400 teachers, Jayanthi, Epstein, Polloway, and Bursuck (1996) found that elementary school teachers identified several test accommodations as more helpful for students than did either middle school or secondary school teachers. In comparison to the ratings of middle school and high school teachers, they also indicated that many of the accommodations were relatively easy to implement. Still, this research did not indicate the extent to which teachers actually used accommodations, just their perceptions of them. Perceptions about accommodations do differ between the elementary and middle/secondary school levels.

Lack of information about how accommodations are used in instruction and assessments is related to some extent to limitations in the availability of accommodations prior to the reauthorization of IDEA (Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Silverstein, 1995). It is also related to difficulties states have encountered in merging information on accommodations into data collection and management systems that have many limitations (Almond, Tindal, & Stieber, 1997).

Following the reauthorization of IDEA and recommendations that states begin to collect data on the use of testing accommodations (Elliott, Thurlow, & Ysseldyke, 1996), several states implemented data collection mechanisms to do just that. By 1999, the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) found that 12 states had data available on the number or percentage of students using assessment accommodations during their state tests. These data are reproduced in Table 2.

The data in this table reveal that in most states, accommodations are used by greater percentages of students at the elementary school level than at either the middle school or high school levels (see Thurlow, 2001). In all but two states, there is a downward trend in percentages across two or three of the school levels. For the 16 tests reflected in the table, the downward trend is evident in 95% of the possible comparisons.

Table 2. State-Reported Levels of Use of Accommodations


Assessment/Subject Area

Elementary Grades (k-5)

Middle School Grades (6-8)

High School Grades (9-12)

Florida 51% (Gr 4) FL Writing Assessment 39% (Gr 8) 34% (Gr 10)

FCAT (Reading)

47% (Gr 4)

38% (Gr 8) 40% (Gr 10)

FCAT (Math)

50% (Gr 5)

38% (Gr 8) 39% (Gr 10)
Indiana Statewide Assessment - Math 28% (Gr 3) 34% (Gr 6); 38% (Gr 8) 80% (Gr 10)
English/Language Arts 29% (Gr 3) 34% (Gr 6); 38% (Gr 8) 82% (Gr 10)
Kansas KS Assessment Program - Math 21% (Gr 4) 14% (Gr 7) 08% (Gr 10)
Reading 19% (Gr 3) 13% (Gr 7) 08% (Gr 10)
Writing 23% (Gr 5) 17% (Gr 7) 09% (Gr 10)
Kentucky Kentucky Core Content Test 82% (Gr 4); 82% (Gr 5) 72% (Gr 7); 70% (Gr 8) 50% (Gr 10); 57% (Gr 11); 55% (Gr 12)
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System 61% (Gr 4) 38% (Gr 8) 25% (Gr 10)
Maryland MSPAP - Reading 53% (Gr 3); 51% (Gr 5) 25% (Gr 8); 16% (Gr 8)
Language Usage 44% (Gr 3); 41% (Gr 5)
Math 20% (Gr 3)
Nevada Terra Nova Complete Battery 51% (Gr 4) 42% (Gr 8) 44% (Gr 10)
New York PEP Test - Reading 50% (Gr 3) 50% (Gr 6)
Math 31% (Gr 3) 32% (Gr 6)
Writing 33% (Gr 5)
Pennsylvania Reading and Math Assessement 67% (Gr 5) 52% (Gr 8) 45% (Gr 11)
Rhode Island Writing Performance Assessment 49% (Gr 3) 55% (Gr 7) 60% (Gr 10)
Health Performance Assessment 39% (Gr 5) 61% (Gr 9)
South Dakota Stanford Achievement Test (Language, Math, Reading, Science, Social Science) 63% (Gr 2); 67% (Gr 4) 59% (Gr 8) 46% (Gr 11)
West Virginia SAT 9 - Language, Math, Reading, Science, Social Studies 64% (Gr 3-11)
From Thompson, S.J., & Thurlow, M.L. (1999). Table 7. Percent of Students Receiving Special Education Services Who Used Testing Accommodations, reprinted with permission of the National Center on Educational Outcomes.

What We Don't Know

We do not yet know what is happening in the majority of situations in which accommodations are being used. Most of the data that we do have on use of accommodations is from assessments, usually state-level tests. Even so, we have a relatively limited number of states able to provide data on the use of accommodations by students receiving special education services. However, given these limited data, we do not yet have a real sense of why there are differences. The survey data of Jayanthi et al. (1996) suggests that teachers at different grade levels do have different perceptions of the helpfulness and ease of administering many accommodations. Do these different perceptions translate into what is selected for students during assessments?

Is there any reason to believe that students with disabilities who are in the upper grade levels have less need for accommodations? Could it be that those students who most need accommodations are the students who have already dropped out of school, and therefore the percentages of students using accommodations drops simply because the ones left need fewer accommodations? Could it be that teachers' perceptions influence their willingness to provide accommodations to students who may actually need them? We do not know the answers to these questions.

Perhaps most important is the question of how what we know (and do not know) relates to the accommodations that students receive during instruction. Most assessment guidelines speak of the need for there to be an alignment between assessment accommodations and instructional accommodations (Elliott & Thurlow, 2000; Thurlow, House, Boys, Scott, & Ysseldyke, 2000). If students with disabilities are receiving fewer accommodations during assessments in the upper grades, does this also mean that they are receiving fewer accommodations during instruction? Is this justified? Do teachers at the upper grade levels face logistical barriers that make providing accommodations nearly impossible unless the student simply cannot function without them?

The grades in which students with disabilities are involved in transition planning are the same grades in which we see declining numbers of students using accommodations. Does that mean that students are less likely to be aware of their need for accommodations because they are not being built into transition plans? If they are not built in during transition planning, do students leave school without any idea of their accommodations needs? And if so, what impact does this eventually have on their success in their postsecondary work or education?

What To Do Now

There clearly are many unanswered questions about the issue of declining percentages of students with disabilities receiving accommodations as they reach middle and high school. An important next step is to begin to answer some of the many related questions.


Almond, P., Tindal, G., & Stieber, S. (1997). Linking inclusion to conclusions: An empirical study of participation of students with disabilities in statewide testing programs (Oregon Report 1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Elliott, J.L., & Thurlow, M.L. (2000). Improving test performance of students in disabilities on district and state assessments. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Fuchs, L.S., & Fuchs, D. (1999). Fair and unfair testing accommodations. The School Administrator, 10 (56), 24-29).

Heumann, J.E., & Warlick, K.R. (2000, August 24). Questions and answers about provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 related to students with disabilities and state and district-wide assessments (Memorandum OSEP 00-24). Washington, DC: Office of Special Education Programs.

Jayanthi, M., Epstein, M.H., Polloway, E.A., & Bursuck, W.D. (1996). A national survey of general education teachers' perceptions of testing adaptations. Journal of Special Education, 30 (1), 99-115.

Thompson, S.J., & Thurlow, M.L. (1999). 1999 state special education outcomes: A report on state activities at the end of the century. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M.L. (2001). Use of accommodations in state assessments What data bases tell us about differential levels of use and how to document the use of accommodations (Technical Report 30). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M.L., & Bolt, S. (2001). Empirical support for accommodations most often allowed in state policy (Synthesis Report). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M.L., Elliott, J.L., & Ysseldyke, J.E. (1998). Testing students with disabilities: Practical strategies for complying with district and state requirements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Thurlow, M.L., House, A., Boys, C., Scott, D., & Ysseldyke, J. (2000). State participation and accommodations policies for students with disabilities: 1999 update (Synthesis Report 29). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M.L., & Wiener, D.J. (2000). Non-approved accommodations: Recommendations for use and reporting (Policy Directions No. 11). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Thurlow, M.L., Ysseldyke, J.E., & Silverstein, B. (1995). Testing accommodations for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 16 (5), 260-270.

Tindal, G., & Fuchs, L.S. (1999). A summary of research on test accommodations: An empirical basis for defining test accommodations. Lexington, KY: Mid-South Regional Resource Center. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 442 245).

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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.

This publication is available in an alternate format upon request. To request an alternate format or additional copies, contact NCSET at 612.624.2097.


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