IEP Accommodations: Choose Wisely

Accommodations are an integral part of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) when providing access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Accommodations do not change the content or expectation of performance outcomes. They do allow teachers to assess students on their “abilities, rather than [their] disabilities” (National Center on Educational Outcomes, Overview, para. 1, 2016). Thus, teachers and school staff make accommodations to the environment or curriculum, based on the needs of individual students, not on the disability category or instructional setting. For instance, Braille is not an appropriate or effective accommodation for all students with visual impairments, just as all students with autism do not require augmentative communication devices. With appropriate accommodations, students with disabilities can independently demonstrate what they have learned during instruction (Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2017).

 Understanding Accommodations

When we make accommodations to the physical environment for students with orthopedic or sensory impairments, everyone understands. Wheelchair ramps, eyeglasses, and hearing aids are common sights in public schools. Students with learning and behavioral disabilities require the same sort of “ramps” to access the curriculum, but their accommodations are often misunderstood as unfair advantages. For this reason, IEP teams must ensure that the accommodations they choose are based on their students’ individual needs and address only barriers to the general curriculum.

Accommodations generally fall into the following four categories: presentation, response, setting, and timing/scheduling (The IRIS Center, 2010). IEP teams can specify accommodations as instructional, testing, or both. While both instructional and testing accommodations provide a level playing field for students with disabilities, some instructional accommodations are specific to the classroom and may not be appropriate for a testing situation. Figure 1 lists some examples of instructional accommodations that do not transfer easily to testing situations.

Figure 1. Examples of instructional accommodations by category.


  • Provide cloze notes for a student with fine-motor or attention deficits.
  • Divide long assignments into smaller chunks for students with organizational difficulties.

  • Given the same assessment rubric, allow students to present orally on a social studies topic instead of requiring a written report.
  • Assess students using short-answer, matching, and/or fill-in-the-blank questions rather than multiple choice.

  • Permit a student to take an independent break to check in with another teacher or staff member, when needed.
  • Let students decide the order in which they will complete assignments.

  • Allow students who do not complete essays in class to take them home to finish.
  • Give students a choice of location for completing their work, with multiple options, in and out of the classroom.

When choosing testing accommodations, educators must comply with their division and state guidelines. For Virginia teachers, the state guidelines allow some, but not all, accommodations, and require special requests for others. One section of this document provides a comprehensive list of permitted test accommodations by category.

Finally, it is important not to confuse accommodations with modifications. Modifications are adaptations to the curriculum that adjust the expectations and requirements of the learning tasks (The IRIS Center, 2010). While modifications are necessary at times, teachers should take care to modify curriculum with a plan to return to grade-level expectations once a learning gap closes.

Choosing Effective and Appropriate Accommodations

IEP teams choose accommodations based on the data reflected in the student’s Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLOP). Current psychological and achievement assessments provide information on the strengths and needs of students, while classroom and parental observations give insight into instructional methods or interventions that work best.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has developed a framework for educators to use as they choose accommodations for students (Shyyan et al., 2016). Three factors drive the decision-making process:

  • the student’s strengths and areas of concern;
  • the possible barriers to curricular access for the student due to the disability; and
  • the implications of certain decisions, in light of district policies regarding instructional and testing accommodations.

Once an IEP team has collected the above data, it can use a worksheet to help consider accommodations (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Accommodations worksheet

accommodations worksheet

Adapted from Jamgochian and Ketterlin-Geller (2015) and Shyyan et al. (2016).

To begin, the IEP team considers the student’s profile. Using the student’s PLOP from the IEP, the team focuses on what the student does easily and what the student struggles with, along with possible reasons for the deficits. Teams can look at information from psychological and academic testing, but should also consider environmental or other factors, such as attendance, attention, and behavior (Jamgochian & Ketterlin-Geller, 2015). For example, if a student does not read on grade level, teams should ask what factors affect the student’s ability to read, including, but not limited to, the student’s disability. Accommodations should be considered, but they may not be sufficient or appropriate for providing access to the curriculum, and students may require specially designed instruction (SDI) in addition to accommodations to address these areas.

The team then views the student’s strengths and deficits through the lens of the four categories of accommodations (presentation, response, timing/scheduling, and setting), identifying barriers and corresponding accommodations. Accommodations should complement a student’s strengths while addressing his or her needs. For instance, a student with a decoding deficit in reading but a listening comprehension strength may benefit from a read-aloud accommodation in subjects other than reading. Once teams identify appropriate accommodations, they should document them clearly in the IEP, provide the necessary training and practice, implement accommodations with fidelity, and evaluate them periodically.

Evaluation of students’ accommodations use is an important step in this process, and several factors/questions should be considered (Shyyan et al., 2015):

  • Many accommodations require training for both the teacher and student. Has this training occurred?
  • Students require practice with accommodations before assessment. Has the student had sufficient practice with this accommodation?
  • Accommodations should provide access to instruction and testing for students. Is the student performing better when the accommodation is in place?
  • Students change over time and may outgrow an accommodation. Is the accommodation still appropriate for the student?

In addition, practice of skills and strategies over time enhances students’ competence and independence. Therefore, teachers must periodically ask themselves if the original need for any accommodation still exists.

Accommodations Resources From VDOE

The State of Virginia allows the following accommodations for any student who takes the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments, regardless of whether he or she receives special education services:

  • adjust group size (small group or individual)
  • modify the environment (e.g., lighting, noise buffers, use of study carrel)
  • specify pencil/pencil grip (for students taking paper/pencil assessments)
  • assist with directions (upon request, any direction marked “SAY” may be simplified or clarified for the student)
  • allow student to read the test aloud (must be tested individually, and may not use accessories)

View restrictions to these universally allowed accommodations in the VDOE’s document Students with disabilities: Guidelines for special test accommodations, Appendix F.

  • The VDOE also provides a comprehensive list of math aids that are (a) allowed for testing, and (b) reserved for instruction and scaffolding. This list is illustrated, and can provide teachers with great ideas on how to use manipulatives and materials to help students succeed in math.

More Accommodations Resources

  • Consideration of assistive technology is a necessary step in the IEP process for all students with disabilities. Visit the IRIS Center for a comprehensive module on assistive technology.
  • The IRIS Center has 65 resources on accommodations (including modules, case studies, videos, and interviews).


Jamgochian, E. M., & Ketterlin-Geller, L. R. (2015). The 2% transition: Supporting access to state assessments for students with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 48(1), 28–35. doi:10.1177/0040059915594781

The IRIS Center. (2010). Accommodations: Instructional and testing supports for students with disabilities. Retrieved from

National Center on Educational Outcomes. (2016). Accommodations for students with disabilities. Retrieved from

Shyyan, V., Thurlow, M., Christensen, L., Lazarus, S., Paul, J., & Touchette, B. (2016). CCSSO accessibility manual: How to select, administer, and evaluate use of accessibility supports for instruction and assessment of all students. Washington, DC: CCSSO.

Virginia Department of Education. (2017). Students with disabilities: Guidelines for special test accommodations. Retrieved from

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