Why should students with significant cognitive disabilities be included in general education classrooms?
Page 3: Access to General Education Curriculum
All teachers must understand what their students need to learn in a given grade level and how to best structure their teaching and learning activities throughout the school year to accomplish this. What and how to teach students with significant cognitive disabilities has been the subject of much debate. Commonly debated issues include whether:
- These students should be held to the same academic expectations as students without disabilities.
- Their instruction should prioritize grade-level academic content or life skills.
All students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, should learn from the general education curriculum based on the grade-level content standards. However, when it comes to standardized state assessments, students with significant cognitive disabilities typically take an alternate assessment that measures their mastery of a different set of performance expectations—the alternate achievement standards. Some states call these extended standards, connectors, essence statements, essential elements, or access points.
- General education curriculum: A sequence of instruction or program of study that is aligned with grade-level content standards and is provided to all students.
- Content standards: An instructional outline delineating what students should know, understand, and be able to do in specified content areas in a given grade level; a definition of the breadth and depth of knowledge, skills, and processes that are to be taught in a given domain.
- Alternate assessment: Assessment used with students who are unable to take the typically administered standardized tests, even with accommodations; aligned to alternate achievement standards and generally reserved for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
- Alternate achievement standards: A state-adopted set of academic standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities that must be aligned with grade-level academic content standards, promote access to the general education curriculum, and reflect high expectations.
Content Standards Versus Alternate Achievement Standards
If all students should learn from the general education curriculum, what is the instructional purpose of alternate achievement standards? Alternate achievement standards identify the most essential knowledge and skills—the essence of the standard—that students with significant cognitive disabilities should master. This means that the basic content that all students are learning is the same, but the depth, breadth, and complexity of what is expected differs.
The table below provides examples of grade-level content standards and their aligned alternate achievement standards. In each row, notice how the alternate achievement standard adjusts the performance expectation while maintaining the same essential content. In this way, alternate achievement standards promote high expectations and general education curriculum access for all students.
Alternate Achievement Standard
|2nd grade social studies||Compare the structure and powers of the three branches of government at the national level.||Identify the primary role of each of the three branches of government.||Three branches of government|
|4th grade math||Apply the area formula for rectangles in real world mathematical problems.||Determine the area of a rectangle by counting unit squares on a drawing.||Calculating the area of a rectangle|
|7th grade science||Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.||Identify daily geoscience processes (e.g., wind, rain) and severe events (e.g., floods, earthquakes) and how they change the surface of the earth.||Impact of geoscience processes|
|9th grade language arts||Analyze in detail how an author’s ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text.||Locate sentences in a familiar text that support an author’s main idea or claim.||Textual support for claims|
Alternate Achievement Standards Versus Alternate Curriculum
Alternate achievement standards simply define the level of content mastery that students with significant cognitive disabilities are expected to demonstrate on the alternate assessment. Students may exceed these performance standards when they are taught in inclusive environments and held to high expectations, so the alternate achievement standards should not be used to limit what a student is taught. Instead, instruction should be individualized as needed to support the student’s ability to learn as much grade-level content as possible.
Did You Know?
There are significant implications and consequences for students who are taught using an alternate curriculum. Instruction that uses a simplified curriculum designed only for students with significant cognitive disabilities is typically provided in a separate setting. This limits students’ access to inclusive environments. Additionally, in many states, students who are taught exclusively through an alternate curriculum are not eligible to earn any kind of high school diploma.
Participation in the alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards does not justify using an alternate curriculum that is:
- Based on content from a lower grade level
- Restricted to only some content areas (e.g., reading and math but not science)
- Primarily focused on vocational and/or life skills
- Taught using different materials and resources than the general education curriculum
- Taught only by special educators
- The same for all students who take the alternate assessment
In this interview, Jessica Bowman explains the difference between the general education curriculum and an alternate curriculum for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
Jessica Bowman, Ph.D.
TIES Center, Co-Principal Investigator
University of Minnesota
For Your Information
The alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards is reserved for only those students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Federal regulations limit the number of students who may take the alternate assessment to no more than 1% of all students being assessed, which translates to about 10% of all students with disabilities. The IEP team is responsible for determining if it is appropriate for a student to participate in the alternate assessment using guidelines established by the state. This assessment is typically administered by the special educator.
Returning to the Challenge
Ethan’s assessment data suggests that he is working on content and skills several grade levels below his third-grade peers. However, Ms. O’Connor has learned that this does not mean she should use the curriculum or materials from a lower grade level to teach Ethan different content than her other students. As she begins to prepare her lesson plans, Ms. O’Connor meets with Mr. Diego, Ethan’s special education teacher, to explore the state’s alternate achievement standards and their alignment with the third-grade content standards. During this planning process, they ask themselves:
- What is the most essential content for all learners to know?
- How should the breadth, depth, or complexity of the content be adjusted for Ethan?
- What is an appropriately high expectation for Ethan’s learning?
This information brief discusses what access to and progress in the general education curriculum means for students with significant cognitive disabilities by emphasizing federal laws and providing various scenario examples.
This article provides further clarification between academic content standards and alternate achievement standards and how they contribute to inclusive education. Examples of instruction aligned to both types of standards are also provided.