In the realm of special education, the use of specialized jargon and unique terminology it the norm. Whether it’s terms that seem basic to us now, like “IEP” and “LRE,” or more of-the-minute phrases like “significant disproportionality,” those of us who work in special education law are expected to be fluent in a veritable alphabet soup of terms and phrases. Two of the most confusing phrases that we come across are “accommodation” and “modification,” so much so that a quick review of court, hearing officer, and Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) decisions shows these terms being used interchangeably, contradictorily, and downright confusingly from day to day. What are the differences between these words, and do those differences matter? Keep reading to find out!
There is no authoritative definition of either “accommodation” or “modification,” but the terms have a generally understood meaning in the field. An accommodation is commonly defined as a change or alteration to HOW a student meets expectations. For example, accommodations might address:
- how information is presented to a student,
- how the student is expected to respond to or show mastery of the information,
- in which setting the student is to receive the information,
- when and with how much time the student is expected to complete an assignment or assessment addressing the information, and
- what supports and aids a student uses to access information.
A modification, on the other hand, is a change to WHAT expectations a student is expected to meet. This includes changes to the curriculum or instructional standards for a student.
Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, accommodations are appropriate for both Section 504 and IDEA eligible students. Modifications, are much less common in the 504 context. When you think about the purposes of the statutes, that makes sense; Section 504 is a civil rights statute with a focus on equity, and changing HOW a student meets expectations helps level the playing field for students with disabilities. The IDEA is a funding statute, with a focus on providing specialized education and related services to students and giving schools the funds to provide that education and services. In that context, it makes sense that changes to WHAT expectations a student is expected to meet would occur.
Does it really matter if you categorize an alteration as an accommodation or a modification? In most circumstances, probably not. Depending on the context, “chunking” or breaking assignments or projects or other activities into smaller, more manageable segments, often with feedback or other additional help from a teacher, is referred to as an accommodation. The student is still required to complete the same research paper as other students, which will be graded on the same standards, but has the project chunked to allow for check ins and feedback during the research, initial drafting, and editing stages of the process. However, in other contexts, such as where the student is in a high-level honors or AP class, chunking could be a modification of the curriculum or expectations required of the student. If the executive functioning required to independently research, draft, and edit is part of what the project is aimed to teach, chunking could be a modification.
Where it might matter to properly categorize an alteration as an accommodation or a modification is if you are trying to determine whether a student should receive an IEP or a Section 504 plan. If the student needs modifications to expectations, err on the side of an IEP. Also, when following OCR guidance on how federal laws apply to statements on report cards and transcripts when those statements identify students as students with disabilities, you may need to know if an alteration is an accommodation or modification.
Otherwise, getting too caught up in the semantics can be risky. Some team members mistakenly think that a certain change is automatically not appropriate for a certain environment. Such as:
“We don’t provide modifications under a Section 504 plan.”
“We don’t provide accommodations in AP classes.”
Those are risky statements and also may miss the bigger issue. Instead, ask:
“Does this child who has a 504 plan and who is seeking modifications really need specially-designed instruction due to a disability under an IEP?”
“Would a requested alteration cause a fundamental alteration to the program or activity?”
These and other fundamental questions—aimed not at trying to fit a requested alteration into a specific box, but rather at determining what a student needs to receive the free, appropriate public education, or FAPE, required by Section 504 or IDEA—will help you focus on the issue at hand and avoid confusion and unnecessary arguments about specific terms.