TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion
Academic Standards for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms: Same Content Standards, Alternate Achievement Standards
Standards are the foundation of academic instruction in the United States. They are the basis for a school’s curriculum and for educators to determine whether students are meeting expectations. Knowing about standards – both academic content standards and alternate achievement standards – is important for including students with significant cognitive disabilities in general education classrooms. With this knowledge, it is possible to determine how to involve students with significant cognitive disabilities in the same academic instruction as their peers in the inclusive classroom. With knowledge of the same content standards and alternate achievement standards, it becomes evident that participation in an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAAS) does not mean that the student needs to be in a separate setting (Sabia & Thurlow, 2019). The purpose of this brief is to clarify what academic content standards and alternate achievement standards are, how they are different, and how they contribute to inclusive education.
When the terms standards or academic standards are used, people generally are thinking about content standards. The state defines the content standards for English language arts, mathematics, science, and other areas (such as social studies). The state’s content standards define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. These standards apply to all K-12 students in the state. This means that all instruction starts from the same content standards for all students, including those with disabilities. The content standards may be achieved through prioritizing what an individual student is to learn and by using adapted assignments and materials. For example, instruction for the student with significant cognitive disabilities may focus on three of the five elements of poetry, such as sound, imagery, and figurative language, while peers in a general education classroom focus on all five elements of poetry, including form and voice. The student with significant cognitive disability will still participate in the lessons about form and voice. Understanding the standards in a vertical progression (Clayton, 2016) may help a team select appropriate content for a range of students with diverse needs. Some states reflect the prioritization or adjustments of content standards for their alternate assessment by referring to extended standards, connectors, essence statements, and access points. It is important to note, however, that students with significant cognitive disabilities who are included in general education classes may demonstrate performances that exceed the performances represented in these adjustments made for assessment purposes and therefore should not be limited by them.
Achievement standards define how well students are to perform based on the state assessment. For students with significant cognitive disabilities who take alternate assessments, states are allowed to define alternate achievement standards that describe different levels of performance expectations (e.g., Basic, Proficient, or Advanced). The performance level descriptions that correspond to a range of assessment scores (Perie, 2007; Quenemoen & Thurlow, 2015) and the content standards for an area may be described together. The alternate achievement standard descriptors are to be aligned to the same grade-level content standards, but may represent less breadth, depth, and complexity. (Refer to Table 1 for an example of performance level descriptors for an alternative assessment.)
Table 1: Sample performance level descriptors for an alternate assessment
Using appropriate adapted grade level materials and texts: the student demonstrates basic understanding of character, plot, setting; story sequences – beginning and end, and can provide at least one detail from the text.
Using appropriately adapted grade level materials and texts: the student demonstrates application of basic literary elements including character, plot, setting, and story sequences, and provides a moderate level of detail from text.
Using grade appropriate materials and texts appropriately adapted: the student demonstrates an accurate understanding of the specified reading skills/concepts and applies the skills/concepts to an authentic task and/or environment with analysis and reflection based on key literary elements.
Further explication of these definitions is available in Quenemoen and Thurlow (2015; See references).
Content standards, not achievement standards, are used to build curriculum for all students. Achievement standards describe different types of performance even though the content standards are the same at a grade-level. In order to provide access and protect the provision of the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for all students, the content standards must be the same. Indeed, the Every Student Succeeds Act ( ESSA, 2015) requires that content standards for assessments based on alternate achievement standards must align with the grade-level content standards for all students. Because ESSA requires all students to participate in assessments, a broader range of performance should be expected. Alternate assessments further expand the range of performance expectations for the same content standards. However, neither the alternate assessment nor the IEP goals should define the curriculum for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The grade level content standards should be the target for ALL students with support to go as far as possible toward mastery of these standards based on individual needs (See TIES Center Brief #4 and Brief #5 for further detail).
IEP teams must to the “maximum extent appropriate, educate children with disabilities with children who are not disabled. Removal to special classes or separate schooling, or removal from the regular education classes occurs only if the nature or severity of disability with supplementary aids and services can’t be achieved satisfactorily” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004). The grade-level general education classroom is the least restrictive option. Indeed, placement cannot solely be based on the need for curriculum modification (IDEIA, 2004). After placement is determined, then assessment participation decisions can be considered. The LRE is a significant consideration in the development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Inclusive classrooms have advantages not only in providing access to a broader range of curriculum based on content standards but also access to social and communication partners. Indeed, students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) are more likely to use their AAC device in an inclusive class where peer supports are available (Kleinert et. al., 2019). In addition, because of the broader range of performance among peers and the need to provide a variety of ways for all students to access the content, selecting appropriate supports and accommodations increases accessibility to the curriculum. For example, when all students are working on the content of fractions, peers might be expected to solve word problems that contain fractions with different denominators. At the same time and in the same class, the student with significant cognitive disabilities might be expected to solve a similar problem with fewer words and a model (e.g. math app) that is close to the same content peers are learning and closer to the grade-level standard. Table 2 includes an example of grade level achievement standards and alternate achievement standards that align to one ELA content standard from one state (from Georgia).
Table 2. An Example of Grade level and Alternate Achievement Standards aligned to one ELA standard
8th grade ELA RL.2 Determine a theme and/or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Grade Level Achievement Level Descriptors *
L1: Identifies a theme or central idea of a text; identifies characters, setting, and plot; and provides a summary of the text.
L2: Identifies a theme or central idea of a text; analyzes characters, setting, and plot; and provides an objective summary of the text.
L3: Determines a theme or central idea of a text and analyzes its development over the course of a text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; and provides an objective summary of the text.
L4: Determines a complex theme or central idea and analyzes its development over the course of a text; assesses its relationship to the narrative elements; and provides a thorough, objective summary of the text.
Alternate Achievement Standard Levels **
L1: Identify key details to include in a summary of a text. Identify characters and settings in various sections of a literary text.
L2: Identify key details that support the given theme and/or central idea in a literary text. Identify plot in a literary text.
L3: Identify the theme and/or central idea of a literary text. Sequence key supporting details of a theme or central idea within a literary text. Identify how the characters respond to the conflict in a story or drama. Identify how the characters respond to events and each other through dialogue within a story or drama.
L4: Describe a central idea or theme of a literary text with key supporting details. Describe characters’ reactions (e.g., happy, sad, scared) to key events and/or connect to dialogue in a story or drama.
* Note for Grade Level Achievement Level Descriptors: Georgia Milestones Assessment System Achievement Level Descriptors for Grade 8 English Language Arts. (Georgia Department of Education, 2015).
** Note for Alternate Achievement Standard Levels: Georgia Alternate Achievement Level Descriptors for Grade 8 English Language Arts. (Georgia Department of Education, 2019).
Additionally, Table 3 shows several examples of content standards from different domains, with instructional examples of students working toward grade-level achievement standard and alternate achievement standard.
Table 3. Content Standards with Examples of Students Working Toward a Grade-level Achievement Standard and Alternate Achievement Standard
Example of a student working toward a grade-level content standard based on grade-level achievement standards
Example of a student working toward the same content standard based on alternate achievement standards (reduced depth, breadth and complexity)
7th grade mathematics
Statistics: Collect data from a random sample to draw inferences about a population with an unknown characteristic of interest.
Within one class period, students collected data to determine the most popular TikTok video among 7th graders at their school. From the full data set, they drew a random sample of 7th grade students (e.g., 10 names being drawn for each homeroom) to build a bar graph. Students then made predictions about the results based on the bar graph.
Within the same class period, students participated in drawing the random sample. Students used one-to-one correspondence with manipulatives to build a bar graph and identify the option with the most results.
8th grade Language Arts
Key Ideas and Evidence: Determine a theme of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot.
Given a chapter from a grade-level novel, students are to identify a theme and complete a graphic organizer with evidence to support the theme for each character, setting, and action within the chapter.
Given the same chapter from an adapted novel (simplified text), students will choose a theme from a set of choice cards and use a graphic organizer to identify evidence for one character, setting, or action within the chapter.
6th grade Writing
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
Given a writing prompt from the teacher asking whether students should be allowed to have cellphones in class, students write a five paragraph response. Students are to include an introductory paragraph to make their claim (for or against), three body paragraphs with reasons and supporting evidence for each reason, and a conclusion paragraph to summarize their argument.
Given the same writing prompt, students will choose whether they are for or against students having cell phones in classrooms by picking from two choice cards that show the options. Next, students will use a graphic organizer with sentence starters. Students will make selections from an option bank of sentence strips of evidence. The final written document will be the student’s completed graphic organizer.
6th grade Science
Explain why the Earth sustains life while other planets do not based on their properties (including types of surface, atmosphere and gravitational force) and location to the Sun.
Using research tools, students complete a table that identifies the properties of each planet and the distance of the sun for each planet. Next, students will create a justification statement for why the Earth is the most compatible for sustaining life.
Given information, students make selections to complete the table broken into sections for each planet. For each planet, the student will make a yes/no judgement for if that planet can sustain life based on the information they placed in that portion of the table.
For additional examples, please see TIES Brief #4: Providing Meaningful General Education Curriculum Access to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities.
This TIPS was designed to outline the difference between a content standard and an alternate achievement standard. While students with significant cognitive disabilities may be assessed by the state using alternate achievement standards, the content of their instruction should be the same grade level content standards as for their peers. While the content may be the same for all students, the achievement level may differ.
Sabia, R., Bowman, J., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2020). Providing meaningful general education curriculum access to students with significant cognitive disabilities (Brief #4). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, TIES Center website: https://files.tiescenter.org/files/4jT3KexfA_/ties-brief-4-providing-meaningful-general-education-curriculum-access-to-students-with-significant-cognitive-disabilities
Sabia, R., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2020). The general education curriculum—not an alternate curriculum! (Brief #5). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, TIES Center website: https://files.tiescenter.org/files/TNcTi9iMCX/brief5-the-general-education-curriculum-not-an-alternate-curriculum
Clayton, H. (2016). Power standards: Focusing on the essential. Making the Standards Come Alive!, V(IV), 1–6. Retrieved from https://justaskpublications.com/just-ask-resource-center/e-newsletters/msca/power-standards/
Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 U.S.C. § 6301. , (2015).
Georgia Department of Education. (2015). Georgia milestones assessment system achievement level descriptors for grade 8 English language arts. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Assessment/Documents/Milestones/ALD/ALDS_for_Grade_8_Milestones_EOG_ELA.pdf
Georgia Department of Education. (2019). Georgia alternate achievement level descriptors for grade 8 English language arts. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Assessment/Documents/GAA_2/GAA2_ALD/ELA_ALD/ELA_Grade_8_ALDs.pdf
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990). , (2004).
Kleinert, J., Kearns, J., Liu, K. K., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Communication competence in the inclusive setting: A review of the literature (TIES Center Report 103). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, The TIES Center website: https://files.tiescenter.org/files/g93yqc4Knm/ties-center-report-103
Perie, M. (2007). Setting Alternate Achievement Standards. Retrieved from Center for Assessment website: https://www.nciea.org/sites/default/files/publications/CCSSO_MAP07.pdf
Quenemoen, R. F., & Thurlow, M. L. (2015). AA-AAS: Standards that are the “same but different” (NCSC Brief #1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center and State Collaborative.
Sabia, R., & Thurlow, M. L. (2019). Taking the alternate assessment does NOT mean education in a separate setting! (Brief #2). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, TIES Center website: https://files.tiescenter.org/files/Mdg9JhH6n-/ties-brief-2.pdf
TIPS Series: Tip #14, November 2020
The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.
All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
Kearns, J., Thurlow, M., Wakeman, S., & Reyes, E. N. (2020). Academic Standards for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms: Same Content Standards, Alternate Achievement Standards (TIPS Series: Tip #14). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.
TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert
University of Minnesota
215 Pattee Hall
150 Pillsbury Dr. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455
This document is available in alternate formats upon request.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.