UDL and the Common Core

A MiddleWeb Blog


High stakes testing season is upon us. One purpose of testing, we’re told, is to assess what students know and to guide them to be ready for their future.

Students with disabilities are provided support through individualized testing accommodations that ensure that their disability does not interfere with their ability to access the information and to express what they know.

The idea is to make the general education curriculum and assessment procedures accessible to all students.

Makes sense, right? But it’s not that simple. Accommodations are only truly supportive if the curriculum and instruction that came before the assessment was accessible to these students in the first place.

That means high quality teaching that guides students with disabilities to build their knowledge base and readiness skills.

The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has released a draft accommodations manual that provides the types of accommodations that may be applied to support students with disabilities and English-language learners to express their knowledge and skills during the administration of the high stakes tests now being developed around the Common Core standards.

To begin development on the Manual, PARCC carefully analyzed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the claims on the PARCC Performance-Based and End-of-Year assessment components in both mathematics and English language arts/literacy, conducted a policy scan on currently available accommodations across all PARCC states, and synthesized the most current research on accommodations for SWD and ELs. – from the PARCC Frequently Asked Questions document.

PARCC seeks public feedback by providing a forum for people to review the documents and comment. (All comments must be submitted by May 13, 2013.) A final draft will be created in June.

Some acceptable accommodations highlighted in the draft

PARCCPARCC identifies five categories related to “equitable access”:

1. Presentation. Any changes in the formatting of the test or the test questions. For example, the use of Braille or sign language.

2. Response. Any changes in the method that the student responds to the questions.  This may include use of a scribe.

3. Timing and Scheduling. Includes allowing students to have more time to complete the test, allowing breaks.

4. Setting. Includes taking the test in a location with minimal distractions, a separate location, and/or smaller group size.

5. Expanded access. Includes additional accommodations for a small number of students who meet certain criteria to require additional support in the areas of reading, writing, and calculating.

The PARCC draft also includes a number of universal design for learning features that expand accessibility for all students either by a student’s choice or at the discretion of school personnel. For example, computerized pop-up glossaries, spell-checkers, or magnification of text will be available. Check out the draft manual to see the full extent of accommodations.

As long as the accommodations do not interfere with the skills being assessed, then the accommodations will be allowed. But I can’t stop thinking about my original question: What are we really accommodating? If the goal is to assess how well students are mastering the Common Core, then let’s take a look at what this means for instruction.

No meaningful accommodation without meaningful instruction

Remember, test accommodations are only supportive if the instruction that leads up to the assessment is also accessible. Otherwise, what happens is this…

Students never really read the passages because they do not have the strategies, the decoding skills, fluency skills, comprehension skills, or the stamina to get through the reading meaningfully.

Students just answer the questions to answer the questions. Frequently they do this haphazardly, randomly, and as quickly as they can because they just want to be done.

Students get discouraged during the test because they do not know how to apply their background knowledge base — and often times, this base is too limited to apply independently.

So in these cases, I ask you…what do the extra time or separate setting provisions really accommodate? In some cases it just gives students extra time to struggle. Extra time to feel frustrated. Extra time to feel anxious, tense, and eventually apathetic.

Basically, no matter how much we accommodate to make these tests accessible, classroom instruction must be clear, consistent, and accommodating each day. The Common Core curriculum must be accessible to students with disabilities and English language learners daily in order for the testing accommodations to serve their true purpose during annual testing season.

What is “High Quality Instruction”?

CAST-intro-UDLFor starters, watch this four minute video, UDL At a Glance, to give you the basis for what Universal Design for Learning is all about. Next, you should explore The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). It is a nonprofit educational research and development organization that works to make learning accessible for all students through Universal Design for Learning.

CAST has clearly defined the principles and practices of UDL, which support instruction and assessments. Adopting a UDL mindset within our inclusion classrooms can definitely provide some answers to pressing questions about how all teachers can make daily instruction accessible. Why wait for the test?! It’s all about three things: providing (1) multiple means of representation, (2) multiple means of engagement, and (3) multiple means of expression to expand learning opportunities for all students.

I’m on a mission to bring this UDL mindset to the teams of teachers I work with — and to help create a district-wide framework to make daily instruction accessible for all students in inclusive settings. I’ve taken some small steps this year, and I’m excited for the steps ahead!  More on that another time…

PARCC still seeks feedback

So when we think about the testing accommodations, clearly we must consider daily instruction. How are these students gaining access to Common Core-related instruction each day so that the testing accommodations are meaningful for them?

CAST-logoThere’s still a little time on our side. PARCC is inviting the public’s feedback on their accommodations draft. CAST has already responded and their valued opinion can be seen here for writing accommodations and here for their response to reading accommodations.

Remember — you have until May 13, 2013 to add your voice–just click here.

And when you think about how to kick up instruction to help students with disabilities and English language learners access the Common Core through high quality daily instruction–comment on this blog and keep our discussion going. We have so much to learn from  each other!

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

7 Responses

  1. Brigid Richards says:

    Accommodations provide my best chance to teach my learning disabled students. When they use my learning lab for a project or test they’re struggling with, in a general ed. class, they’re opting to care about their work and get my support, which often includes teaching them the material for the first time. Many of my students can’t do difficult academic tasks, unless they have a tutor next to them.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Brigid, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You bring up a great point about the value of pre-teaching and the necessity of re-teaching for students with learning disabilities. I think it is also crucial to make sure that accommodations are embedded into the instruction and assessment procedures, so teachers scaffold students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills as independently as possible. What do you think?

    • Norbert says:

      My learning disabled kids!

  2. Melody Geroux says:

    All the accommodations in the world will not help my 8th graders, working at a 1st grade skill level, pass the 8th grade tests. These students with multiply disabilities are not eligible to be alternately assessed, yet can’t possibly succeed at anywhere near their grade level – not for lack of their trying, or their teachers before me, or me. Pushing the curriculum down lower, raising the standards, and the new core curriculum, or whatever new fad, scare tactic or reworking of old news comes along isn’t going to change that – and I’m tired of watching them cry and act out to the point of hospitalization over whatever test is used because a politician thinks it will.
    I have come to accept I’ll probably retire (12 years to go) before education is broken enough for it to be given to actual educators to try and resurrect from the ashes.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Melody, thanks for your comment–it brings to life some real issues that need real solutions! look at the solutions that are in our control are always consoling.
      Keeping your focus on your daily instruction–meaningful instruction– that meets the specific needs of your students is a very valued solution. As far as the high stakes testing, part of our goal, as you know, is to do all we can to keep our students calm and as relaxed as possible. And forums like this help us to share our voice and connect with others who understand the full perspective of the world of education beyond the test. You know what it takes to give your students what they need for their future–so you just do it. And we continue to re-channel our energy as we are doing our best each day to give our students what they need. Thanks for sharing your voice–it’s the only way support and solutions may be found…

    • Mary Sheble says:

      I agree. I have a number of very cognitively impaired students who must take the high stakes tests. These children work hard and have made great strides, but will never meet grade level expectations. As a teacher, I am made to feel that if I just try the right program or way of teaching we could get these children to meet the grade level expectations. These children need to be learning the skills they need to help them be successful in life. That is not necessarily the core. The core for them is life skills. We try to tie as much as we can to the core, but often, they are not able to cognitively understand the concepts, especially as they move up in grade level. I invite any politician who continues to make these unrealistic demands on testing, to come in and spend a week with these kids and then tell me if they think that this is the way to go. So you can give them all the accommodations you want, attempt to make the core accessible, and they still will not be able to pass the tests. I believe that it is time to accept the fact that we cannot mandate that all students will be able to learn all things, that some students have challenges that cannot be fixed, and that we should tailor their education to what they need to succeed in life. We need to accept that all students cannot be tested in the same way and on the same material, and that if we truly are differentiating, assessing what students learn should be based on what they are learning based on their needs.

  3. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Mary, thanks for sharing your experiences and viewpoint. I think many readers will connect to your comment.

    Specifically, you said, “I believe that it is time to accept the fact that we cannot mandate that all students will be able to learn all things, that some students have challenges that cannot be fixed, and that we should tailor their education to what they need to succeed in life. We need to accept that all students cannot be tested in the same way and on the same material, and that if we truly are differentiating, assessing what students learn should be based on what they are learning based on their needs.”

    I think it is important for everyone to keep in mind that holding students to high standards and expectations really does help so many students to achieve at deeper and greater levels. For so many, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that may redirect any signs of learned helplessness. And it is simply beyond exciting to see that PARCC has considered universal design toward accommodating diverse learners. We are moving in the right direction (generally speaking).

    However, the question remains, what can be done to help those students (such as the students in your class) whose cognitive levels just cannot meet the expectations of the Common Core–even with accommodations? Clearly much more thinking and solution seeking must be done. I think it makes sense that a universal approach to accommodating the testing experience should follow from a universally designed approach to creating the test in the first place.

    Until then, we do what we do…keep the instruction real–with our sights set on challenging and pushing our students toward personal levels of high achievement.

    Thanks for sharing and keeping this very important discussion going…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.