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Do teachers "have" to modify?

Kaci Deauquier Sheridan

August 2023


I experienced something this week. Something that rendered me speechless, which is VERY hard to do and has only happened a handful of times.


While in a meeting, several people in leadership and administrative roles at a school district in Texas made a statement that I never ever could have imagined needed explanation or justification.


But, here we are.


Leaders in academic and content roles at a district in Texas argued that teachers did not have to modify tests, curriculum, and daily classwork because it could impair the student to change the curriculum, even if it was listed in the individualized education plan (IEP).


Their justification?


Texas no longer offers a Modified STAAR test; therefore, it was argued that the child would be expected to take the STAAR test, which does not reduce curriculum standards tested. So, curriculum, daily coursework, and assessments shouldn’t be modified either. They were so confident that they indicated that they had been advised that this was true and a “district understanding.”

Ok. Deep breath.


Let’s break this down for a moment.


Why have a 'modified’ curriculum?


The modified curriculum was developed as a support for students whose disabilities prevent them from being successful with the entirety of the curriculum and keeping up with the pace of instruction. Disabilities in things like reading comprehension, dyslexia, math (dyscalculia), or writing (dysgraphia) can make it difficult for students to keep up with curriculum goals set for all students. These students are often behind their peers academically but can be successful in general education classrooms if they are no longer responsible for all of the content. If they are on a modified curriculum. Modifications are changes to the instruction or curriculum, in which instructional content or expectations on assessments are adjusted.


When modifications are made to the curriculum or instruction, it means that significant changes have been implemented. As a result of modifications, children with disabilities are not held to the same academic standards as their peers in the classroom.

Modifications are provided to students only after ALL possible accommodations, additional support, and interventions have been provided, and it has been noted that students are still not making progress in the general education curriculum. A modified curriculum can help students by narrowing their focus and growing skills in order to progress in the general education curriculum at their own level.


Students who remain on a modified curriculum through 12th grade earn a “modified diploma” indicating that they were not responsible for learning all of the TEKS required for graduation. However, students can be moved off a modified curriculum if the data supports it and therefore receive a standard diploma.


What are some examples of modifications?


Imagine a 4th-grade child with severe learning disabilities in math calculation and reading comprehension who is struggling with multi-step word problems and isn’t ready to work on multi-step word problems regarding fractions and decimals. In this situation, they still have not mastered one-step word problems with addition, subtraction, and multiplication. This means that his instructional level has changed, he is now working at a second-grade level, not fourth-grade.


Grades on his report card should report his independence, progress, and success on his goal of one-step word problems with addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Some teachers use modified grading scales or strategies. However, this rarely happens. Often report card grades are reported based on achievement in the standard grade level curriculum. As a parent, it is important to ask if these grades are based on his performance on his modified goals/curriculum or on grade level curriculum.



Reduced assignments - Require a writing assignment to be 1-2 paragraphs versus several pages and the objectives targeted are shortened.


Provide reading material at the student’s instructional level - Students in the class are all reading primary sources on the American Revolution. The readings chosen are all at different levels so that the children are all reading about the American Revolution but at a level that they can comprehend independently.


Shortened spelling list - Rather than learning the entire 25-word spelling list every week, a student may not be responsible for only 10 words.

  • This means that there is a different standard of mastery - 10 words vs. 25 - half the number of words general education students learn weekly.

Remember: Kids who receive modifications are not expected to learn the same number of TEKS, the same volume of material, or understand it as deeply as the other general education students.

Let’s play a game called, is it modified?


The 4th-grade class is working on a spelling test in which they are asked to write sentences with each of the spelling words as the teacher reads them out loud.

  • The objective is to show mastery of the spelling rules and demonstrate their ability to write complete sentences.

A student is allowed to use spell check software and is only responsible for half of the spelling words.


Modification or accommodation?


In this scenario, the student is allowed to use spell-check software. Therefore, they are not responsible for one of the targeted skills, spelling rules. This assignment is grading them on writing complete sentences.


Therefore, the assignment is modified.


Let’s try another one.


The same 4th-grade class is working on a writing assignment in which they are asked to write a 4 paragraph essay about a science concept of their choice that they have covered so far this year. The teacher has provided a list of topics students can choose from.

  • The objective is to show mastery of the science concept by being able to explain it through the essay as well as writing an essay with a strong beginning, middle, and end that includes supporting details/evidence to support their thesis.

A student with a disability is allowed to use technology such as speech-to-text, spell check, and word prediction software.


Modification or accommodation?


In this scenario, the student is allowed to technology such as speech-to-text, spell check, and word prediction software. Therefore, they are still responsible for all of the objectives that the assignment is meant to measure.


Therefore, the assignment is accommodated.


Can teachers REFUSE to modify?


So, let’s get down to it. Can a teacher refuse to modify the curriculum if the student’s IEP indicates that they receive modified instruction and tests?

The short answer is NO!


Not only no, but NO WAY! No how! Nope! Uh-Uh!


The IEP is a legal document indicating the supports schools are legally required to provide. If a teacher were to refuse to or be advised not to modify curriculum despite the IEP indicating the student received modified curriculum they would be breaking the following laws.

  • Failure to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

    • IDEA requires schools to provide students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) that meets their individualized needs.

    • A teacher’s refusal to modify the curriculum hinders their ability to access the curriculum, in the least restrictive environment, and make meaningful educational progress.

  • Failure to Implement IEP supports and services (IDEA)

    • IDEA mandates that schools must implement and provide services, accommodations, related services, and modifications listed in a student’s IEP. (IDEA 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(2)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.323(c).

    • If a teacher refuses to modify they are not following the IEP, which means they are not following the law, and therefore violating IDEA.

  • Denial of Appropriate Educational Placement

    • If an IEP identifies modifications as necessary for the student’s success and the teacher refuses to provide them resulting in the child being perceived as not making progress. If, as a result of that, the student is removed from the general education classroom and into a more restrictive placement, IDEA (section 1415(k)(1)) has been violated.

  • Procedural Safeguards and Due Process:

    • Procedural safeguards (IDEA) are provided to protect the rights of students with disabilities along with their parents/guardians.

    • It is considered a violation when a teacher refuses to follow the IEP by refusing to modify the curriculum. This is considered a denial of those procedural safeguards as it interferes with the student’s due process rights.

When schools fail to follow student IEPs the results can be costly.

The list goes on…


Now, let’s talk about the STAAR test.


Why did Texas discontinue the Modified version of the STAAR?


For many years, modified STAAR tests for students with disabilities who had a modified curriculum, per their IEP. Texas was one of a handful of states across the nation that ever administered a test such as STAAR modified. In 2014, the US Department of Education banned modified assessments in federal accountability calculations. Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, modifications were used to refer to changes in the delivery and content of assessments, but now all students are tested using the same standards.


Looking back it is important to understand that STAAR Modified was NOT modified in the sense that classwork and assessments are. STAAR modified covered the same grade level course content as the STAAR test. As I said above, it did so with fewer answer choices and simplified questions and answer choices.


When we consider “modification” today in relation to the STAAR test, replacing the term “modifications” with the term “alternative assessment” helps one to understand that these tests are simply less complex test versions. Currently, the online version of STAAR A (STAAR accommodated) is able to provide accommodation supports that closely resemble those of STAAR Modified, which include simplified language on questions and only one answer choice. The online version of the test provides students with accommodations like “content and language support” that would not have been possible on a paper-pencil test. These supports offer rollovers/pop-ups that help with understanding directions, simplify language, and provide visual representations of concepts. These accommodations are designed to aid a student's understanding of passages, test items, and answer choices.


So what does this mean for teachers, general education and special education, and the

administrators who guide them?


A failure to implement a student’s IEP is a FAPE violation. Things like failing to provide special education services or program/curricular modifications that were included in a student's IEP is a violation.


Additionally, if you fail to modify when you get the IEP but do so later, that can also be a violation of delaying the implementation of an IEP. It is important for school districts to follow the Ninth Circuit's statement that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legally binding agreement between school staff, the student's parents, and the student (unofficially). School district leaders must ensure that the special education services outlined in the student's IEP, such as modified coursework, instructional materials, and tests, are carried out as planned by the Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee.


Let’s sum up.


Leaders at a district in Texas argued that they did not have to modify, even if modified curriculum, tests, and daily work were listed on a student's IEP due to the fact that the STAAR test is not modified and does not reduce standards. They argued that modifying the curriculum sets students up for failure on the STAAR test.


To recap.

  • STAAR modified was never really modified at all. It was accommodated by simplifying concepts/language in the questions and offering fewer answer choices. In the online version of the STAAR accommodated assessment, accommodations such as content and language supports, simplify concepts/language and offer additional support. Making it a lot like the modified STAAR test from the early 2000s.

  • Modified curriculum, as a support for special education students, was determined to be important to help those students with serious learning disabilities make progress and grow academically.

  • Kids who receive modifications are not expected to learn the same number of TEKS, the same volume of material, or understand it as deeply as the other general education students.

  • Modifications, as listed on a child’s IEP, are protected by FAPE and IDEA. Failure to follow it violates a number of laws and violates the student’s rights.

Therefore, being prepared to take the STAAR test is immaterial in determining whether or not to modify assignments, tests, and daily instruction.

It’s not a choice. It’s the law.

And, it’s what’s best for kids.

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