Sunday, October 21, 2012

Adaptation versus Modification: Critical code words in understanding K12 special education. (plus Settings)

Every discipline has its own special language, and special education is no exception. Common words, like 'accommodation', 'adaptation' and 'modification' can take on special meanings. After years of using these words, it may be surprising to learn that not everyone knows what they mean.

Certainly I was surprised to learn, after years of being a special education parent, that for some teachers there's a significant difference between 'adaptation' and 'modification' in special needs education, whereas for others the terms are synonymous. There appear to be local usage variations and it's not clear that regular education teachers, especially novice teachers, understand the distinctions as well as special education teachers.

From what I read the term accommodation is consistently used for relatively modest changes to education and examination. A student may have additional time to do an exam, or may hear questions rather than read them.

The term modification is usually used to refer to significant changes to a curriculum or testing process. My rewrite of a standard 9th text in World History to a 4th grade reading level would be considered a substantial modification. I believe in some locations the words "change in rubric" is used to mean modification.

The term adaptation is sometimes used as a synonym for 'accommodation', sometimes as a synonym for 'modification' and sometimes for something between the two. The meanings appear to be regional, but this British Columbia school district description matches what I hear from a Minneapolis Special Education teacher ...

Adapted and modified education programs

Adapted Program

This is a program that retains the learning outcomes of the prescribed (regular) curriculum but adaptations are provided so that student can participate in the program. Examples of adaptations include assigning a 'buddy' for note-taking, assigning fewer examples for practice, extending time for assignments and tests. Students on adapted programs are assessed using the provincial curriculum standards set out by the Ministry of Education.

Modified Program

This is a program in which the learning outcomes are substantially modified from the prescribed curriculum and specifically selected to meet the student's needs. Examples of modifications include the student being taught the same information as other students, but at a different level of complexity; or given a reduced assignment (e.g., fewer questions to answer); or the student uses a lower-level reading textbook. A student on a modified program is assessed in relation to the goals and objectives established in the student's IEP.A student's program could include some courses that are modified and others that are adapted.

Another BC document makes clear the practical distinction between adaptation and modification:

Although decisions about modifications to a student’s courses or subjects may take place in grades earlier than Grade 10, a formal decision that an overall program is modified does not need to occur until Grade 10.  The decision to provide modifications, particularly at the secondary school level, will result in students earning a School Completion Certificate upon leaving school rather than credits toward graduation ... 

As a parent of one special needs child who will not graduate from high school, and another who should graduate from college, I love the clarity of the Canadian (BC specifically) distinctions. Adapted means regular diploma, modified means no diploma. 

Knowing this, it's possible to squint hard at a No Child Left Behind document on adaptation vs. modification and spy the political subtext. There are big racial achievement gaps in American schools (Koreans do best), and the there's considerable pressure to do 'adaptations' rather than 'modifications' so more kids get diplomas and go to college. This may explain why some school districts appear to be emphasizing adaptations, and why there appears to be no money, and no market, for adapted modified textbooks. Without adapted modified textbooks, and with cuts to special education resources who can do modifications, we have the situation of my son's utterly incomprehensible college-level human geography text and his impossible biology exams.

Mainstream teachers don't have the time, and perhaps not the training, to do modifications, and it's absurd to think that a shrinking number of special education teachers can generate a unique modified textbook and curriculum for every student. Of course there's no reason someone like me couldn't do modified textbooks to be distributed nationwide, but that appears to be quite inconceivable.

See also

Update 10/22/2012: 

In the US the "Settings" concept is an important complement to the model of adaptation (diploma) and modification (no diploma). There are Levels of "settings":

  • Setting I: less than 20% of time in special education setting
  • Setting II: 20-60% of day in special education setting
  • Setting III: more than 60% of day in special education setting

I suspect Setting I is consistent with Adaptations and a diploma, Setting III means modifications and no diploma and Setting II could go either way.

In the case of my #1 son he's currently in Setting II but might do well in Setting III. At this time, however, he strongly prefers Setting II. I suspect that our school has a limited capacity for Setting III, so Setting II is the only thing we've been offered. That could work well if there were resources to provide modifications for Setting II, and if mainstream teachers were keen to use those resources. Instead we've found our mainstream teachers claim to be completely unaware of how to do modifications; sometimes those claims are credible.

No comments: