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Frequently Asked Questions

How are states’ academic content standards developed?

Most state departments of education convene a writing team of educators considered to be experts in the subject area. Each team typically relies on national content standards documents produced by other experts in the field to guide their discussion about essential knowledge and skills in each content area. Sometimes, the writing teams consult standards documents from other states.

Once the academic content standards are identified, many state departments of education ask their writing teams to design supplementary materials that will help teachers implement the standards. These additional materials sometimes include samples of curriculum guides or suggestions for instructional strategies that are aligned with the standards. Some states’ documents also include suggestions for teachers on how to help students with disabilities achieve the standards.

Are there any guidelines that states should follow in determining the quality of their academic content standards?

The National Research Council, in its publication, Testing, Teaching and Learning: A Guide for States and School Districts (1999), recommends that states and districts consider the following criteria when designing their standards:

  • Basis in Content: The standards should focus on the “essential knowledge and skills in a subject area” (p. 27).
  • Cognitive Complexity: The standards should go beyond the facts and require that students “show that they can use their knowledge to analyze new situations and reason effectively” (p. 27).
  • Reasonableness: The standards should be written at a level so that “students, teachers, and parents believe they are attainable with effort” (p. 27).
  • Focus: The standards should be written so that teachers can actually accomplish them, given the time, resources and support they have available to them in the classroom.
  • Clarity: The standards need to be written at the level of specificity needed so that teachers can use them to effectively guide classroom instruction. If the standards are too general, it can result in too many different interpretations by teachers. If the standards are too specific, it may result in teachers covering many topics superficially rather than teaching fewer things in greater depth.

What can classroom teachers do to help students with disabilities in their classrooms reach the standards?

Teachers can accommodate diverse learners’ needs in the classroom by making adjustments in the materials or methods used. These adjustments include instructional accommodations and modifications, such as:

  • assigning fewer tasks per assignment
  • giving alternative assignments
  • decreasing the length of assignments
  • allowing students to use graph paper for calculations
  • breaking learning tasks into smaller parts
  • highlighting key points
  • providing note-taking aids
  • changing seat location to reduce distraction
  • allowing students to use a word processor
  • arranging for tutoring or study buddies
  • providing materials with lower reading levels
  • providing examples of correctly completed work
  • giving advance notice of assignments
  • providing tape-recorded versions of printed materials
  • presenting information in multiple ways

Who decides which instructional accommodations students with disabilities can use to help them reach the academic content standards?

Decisions about what accommodations are to be used are made by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and are formally documented in the IEP.

What happens when students with disabilities can’t reach the standards even with quality instruction and appropriate accommodations?

When students with disabilities are unable to reach the standards even with accommodations, this may be the time to consider modifying the content of what the student should learn, or the level of performance required of the student. An example of a state content standard and the same standard with modified content follow:

  • Content Standard: Estimate and measure length, capacity and mass using these units: inches, miles, centimeters, and kilometers; milliliters, cups and pints; kilograms and tons.
  • Modified Content Standard: Requiring students to do fewer problems, such as estimate and measure length, capacity and mass by using inches, cups, pints, and tons.

Who decides what modifications to employ?

Decisions about modifications are especially critical, because they will affect student learning in the future (Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000). Consequently, the IEP team should make these decisions with a great deal of input from people who understand content standards and students’ learning needs. It is also important that IEP teams’ decisions to modify do not come too early in the decision making process.

Where are the content standards referred to in the IEP?

Few states and districts refer specifically to content standards on their IEP forms. For now, whenever the IEP form refers to access to the general education curriculum, it may be helpful to write in a phrase such as “so that the student can meet the educational standards that have been set for all students.” In the future, states and districts should consider including a place on the IEP form for the academic standard/s so that the alignment between the IEP and the standards is clear.

Why should students with disabilities be held to common academic content standards when the IEP process requires an individualized education?

In the past, special education for students with disabilities was designed like a special curriculum for individual students based on their unique learning needs and their own personal educational goals. Too often, however, this individualized curriculum was not closely linked to the academic standards that had been established for other students. As a result, many students with disabilities left school without learning what they needed to know to make a successful transition to further education or employment. The recent move to a standards-based system of education and the requirement that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum should result in a better blend of holding students accountable to common academic standards, while still ensuring that they receive the individualized support necessary for them to reach the standards.

What about students with significant cognitive disabilities? How can they learn the standards?

Standards-based systems of education provide opportunities for all students to learn, including students with significant cognitive disabilities. Generally, thinking more broadly about the content of the standards and giving students unique ways to demonstrate their understanding will accomplish this. For example, students with significant disabilities can progress toward a standard centered on sound economic decision-making, by making purchases at the grocery store or handing deposit slips to a bank teller. The student works on skills that convey the essence of the standard and that are aligned with his or her needs and future goals.


The following sources were cited in this Frequently Asked Questions. For additional research and resources, see our links to other pages on this topic below.

National Research Council. (1999). Testing, teaching, and learning: A guide for states and school districts. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nolet, V., & McLaughlin, M. J. (2000). Accessing the general curriculum: Including students with disabilities in standards-based reform. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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This page was last updated on January 12, 2022.