Accommodations and Advanced Classes

Great Information About Accommodations

There’s an unfortunate misunderstanding among some educators and disability professionals about accommodations and advanced classes (such as Magnet, Gifted, Advanced Placement, and/or Honors).  Schools have tried to tell students that accommodations can’t be used in advanced classes.  Some educators still labor under the impression that accommodations in some way “make it easier” for a student to do their work, and that they have no place in programs that are by definition selective, competitive, and/or academically challenging. In addition, students already in advanced classes whose parents believe they need an evaluation for special education have been told their child should return to the general education classroom.  “Obviously, Mary just can’t keep up”.

Even in the educational field some people still believe accommodations give students an unfair advantage. Accommodations are actually “work-arounds” to reduce the impact your child’s particular challenge has on his learning ability.  They’re designed to improve access to the learning process and certainly don’t guarantee academic success. Ask any child who has an accommodation-when it always takes you 60 minutes to read an assignment and your classmates take 30, being “given” the extra 30 minutes isn’t an advantage. It still takes you twice as long.

Modifications, another adjustment often found in IEPs and 504 plans, are different.  Modifications do change the curriculum and what’s expected from the student. As an example of the differences, look at a social studies test given to a fifth grade class. Tory’s test uses second-grade level language and concepts, and Tory’s test is a shorter length than the rest of his classmates’.  He has a modification. Jolene takes the regular test, but she sits in a “quiet study” carrel and takes a short break to refocus.  She has an accommodation. Children who use extensive modifications to the academic curriculum may not meet the academic criteria for advanced classes.

In 2007, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education published a letter giving school districts guidance on the subject of advanced classes and students with disability (read the letter here). Schools must give students with a disability the same opportunity to apply for admission into advanced classes as students without disability, and they can’t deny access to these programs based on a student’s having an IEP or 504 plan.  On the other hand, schools can set eligibility requirements for these classes, and a student with a disability must meet the same criteria as those without to qualify. Admission into advanced classes and programs are often determined by previous classroom performance or testing. It’s similar to trying out for a place on a team. Not everyone who tries out will make it, with or without a disability.

The same letter makes it clear that students receiving accommodations in their regular classes need to receive them in advanced classes as well.

What if your child is already in an advanced class and is struggling?  You suspect the reason isn’t that the material is too challenging, but that your son or daughter may have an as-yet-undefined challenge in accessing the material or with the way content is presented.  You worry that if you want an evaluation, the school will “suggest” (i.e., present as the only option) a return to the general education class.  The school can’t deny your request for an evaluation on the basis that a student is taking an academically-challenging class. Certainly your child can’t receive accommodations to “make sure” they succeed in a challenging environment. However there is a wide range of mental or physical conditions that could create a need for special education services. When your child is struggling, you want to know why, and while evaluations aren’t “fishing expeditions” they can be valuable tools to identify specific barriers your child may be facing.  Don’t hesitate to request one if you feel it needs to happen.

The United States Department of Education has just released a new memorandum clarifying, once again to school districts that “twice-exceptional” children (children who have high cognition and who also have a disability) also fall under the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), and are entitled to the same protection and services under the law as any other student with disability.  The memorandum references an earlier letter from 2013 discussing the same issue.

If your school department tells you that they won’t evaluate your child because they have high cognition or refuses to let them use modifications in either advanced or general education classes (because they “have high cognition and shouldn’t need extra help”), then you might wish to draw their attention to both the original letter and the memorandum.  Both of these Department of Education documents were distributed to state superintendents of education and should have been forwarded to local school departments.

In summary: bright, creative and resourceful children can have challenges that can be worked around with proper accommodations. Schools are obligated to provide accommodations in advanced classes if the child has them in an IEP or 504 plan. Children already in advanced classes are also entitled to evaluation for special education services if a parent requests one.

Thanks to for their article on this topic!