Grading Students with Educational
Dean B. Eggert, September 27, 2001
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This material was originally
presented at the 4th Annual Best Practices in Special and
Regular Education Conference held in Concord, New Hampshire, on
September 27 & 28, 2001. The conference was sponsored by the New
Hampshire School Administrators Association (NHSAA),
the New Hampshire Association of Special Education
Administrators (NHASEA) and the
Hampshire Department of Education.
A Word of Caution
This material is designed to
provide educators with a general understanding of the law as it
pertains to the grading of students. You are strongly encouraged
to seek a legal opinion from the school district's legal counsel
regarding any specific case.
The purpose of this material is to
provide the general educator with a working knowledge of his or
her obligations under the IDEA and Section 504 to provide
students with disabilities equal opportunity to learn and
receive a passing grade.
II. The Impact of IDEA
Requirements on Grading
The IDEA does not specifically
address the issue of grading students with educational
disabilities. However, the incorporation of the inclusionary
model in the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, has a profound
impact on the question of how to provide an appropriate
education for special education students while at the same time
maintaining high academic standards for all students.
The 1997 reauthorization now
requires a justification from the IEP Team as to why a student
is not participating in the general education class and
curriculum. To the extent possible, educators are required to
afford special education students opportunity to participate in
the general curriculum. This mandate must be implemented under
pressure from the standards-based school reform movement that
seeks to improve academic excellence for all students.
Along with the inclusionary model
comes the requirement, as of July 1, 1998, that students with
disabilities are to be included in statewide assessments. In
summary, the IDEA reauthorization creates a general presumption
that students with disabilities will not only "participate" in
the general curriculum to the maximum extent possible, but will
also be held to standards of accountability. This presumption is
bolstered by the Congressional criticism that the
"implementation of IDEA in the past has been impeded by low
expectations . . ." 20 U.S.C. §1401(b)(44).
Grading also has implications on
whether or not a student advances to the next grade level. The
Federal Regulations address the need for students to meet
standards in order to move to the next grade level. 34 CFR Part
300, Appendix A to Part 300, Federal Register, Vol. 64, No. 48,
page 12472, states that:
"Public Agencies often require
all children, including children with disabilities, to
demonstrate mastery in a given area of the general curriculum
before allowing them to progress to the next level or grade in
that area. Thus, in order to ensure that each student with a
disability can effectively demonstrate competencies in an
applicable area of general curriculum, it is important for the
IEP Team to consider the accommodations and
modifications that the child needs to assist
him or her in demonstrating progress in the area."
These two concepts,
accommodation and modification,
have direct implications for how we grade and evaluate special
education students. Therefore, it is important for the educator
to understand the difference between an accommodation and a
A. Accommodation defined
is a change in the course, standard, test preparation, location,
timing, scheduling, expectations, student response, and/or other
attribute which provides access for a student with a disability
to participate in a course, standard or test which does
not fundamentally alter or lower the standard or
expectation of the course, standard or test." See Guidelines
for the Promotion and Retention of Special Education Students,
California Dept. of Education,
accommodations are "outside the body," that is,
physical or environmental changes around the student. Teachers
usually refer to accommodations as good teaching strategies.
Some examples of accommodations are
extending/adjusting time; allowing frequent breaks; varying
activity often; omitting assignments that require timed
leaving class for academic assistance; preferential seating;
altering physical room arrangement; defining limits
(physical/behavioral); reducing/minimizing distractions (visual,
auditory, both); cooling off period; sign language interpreter.
Presentation of Material:
emphasizing teaching approach (visual, auditory, tactile,
multi); individual/small group instruction; taping lectures for
replay; demonstrating/modeling; using manipulatives/hands-on
activities; pre-teaching vocabulary; utilizing advance
organizers; providing visual cues.
Equipment/Assistive Technology: taping texts;
highlighting material; supplementing material/laminating
material; note taking assistance/copies from others; typing
teacher's material rather than using handwriting on board; color
overlays; using calculator, computer, word processor; using
Braille text; using large print books; using decoder for
television and film; having access to any special equipment.
credit for projects; giving credit for class participation.
giving directions in small, distinct steps; allowing copying
from paper/book; using written back-up for oral directions;
adjusting length of assignment; changing format of assignment
(matching, multiple choice, fill-in-blank, etc.); breaking
assignment into series of smaller assignments; reducing
paper/pencil tasks; reading directions/assignments to students;
giving oral/visual cues or prompts; allowing
recording/dictated/typed answers; maintaining assignment
notebook; avoiding penalizing for spelling errors on every
Follow-Through: using positive reinforcement; using
concrete reinforcement; checking often for understanding/review;
providing peer tutoring; requesting parent reinforcement; having
student repeat/explain the directions; making/using vocabulary
files; teaching study skills; using study sheets/guides;
reinforcing long-term assignment timelines; repeating
review/drill; using behavioral contracts/check cards; giving
weekly progress reports; providing before and/or after school
tutoring; conferring with student (daily, bi-weekly, weekly,
reading test verbatim to student (in person or recorded);
shortening length of test; changing test format (essay vs.
fill-in blank vs. multiple choice, etc.); adjusting time for
test completion; permitting oral answers; scribing test answers
for student; permitting open book/notes exams; permitting
testing in isolated/different location.
See "To Accommodate, To Modify,
and to Know the Difference," Hayes, Nakonia,
B. Modifications Defined
is a change in the course, standard, test preparation, location,
timing, scheduling, expectations, student response, and or other
attribute which provide access for a student with a disability
to participate in a course, standard or test, but which
does fundamentally alter or lower the standard or
expectation of the course, standard or test. Id.
Simply put, modifications
involve structural, cognitive change in the level of the
The following are examples of
Presentation of Subject
Matter: utilizing specialized curriculum written at a
lower level of understanding.
Equipment/Assistive Technology: adapting or simplifying
texts for lower level of understanding; modifying content areas
by simplifying vocabulary, concepts and principles.
weights of examinations.
lowering reading level of assignment; adapting worksheets,
packets with simplified vocabulary.
reducing reading level of test. Id.
Decisions regarding the
"accommodations and modifications that the child needs to assist
him or her in demonstrating progress," must be made on an
individual basis by the IEP Team. A failure to
make proper accommodations and modifications sets the student up
for failure in the general curriculum. A failure to make proper
modifications and accommodations enhances the risk of behavioral
issues with the student.
III. The Impact of Section
504 on Grading Requirements
While the IDEA provisions
indirectly impact grading, Section 504's nondiscrimination
provisions directly impact the grading of students. Section 504
protects all students, including educationally disabled
students. It prohibits discrimination against a student with a
disability on the basis of that disability, providing that:
"No otherwise qualified individual
with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his
disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the
benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program
or activity which receives or benefits from Federal financial
assistance." 29 U.S.C. §794(a).
The goal of Section 504 is to
provide equality in opportunity. The hallmark of Section 504 is
accommodation. The Section 504 Plan seeks to
offer reasonable accommodations in order to provide equality in
opportunity. Section 504 does NOT require that
an educational institution lower its educational standards.
However, Section 504 does require that with respect to grades,
class ranking, honor rolls, graduation and diplomas, students
with disabilities must be treated the same as all other
students. See 34 CFR Part 104, §104.4. Section 504 also
requires that the District provide a free appropriate education
at public expense [FAPE] to an otherwise qualified individual
with a disability. Id. at Sections 104.31-104.36.
IV. The Basic Rules
There are some basic rules that the
educator should apply to the grading of a special education
student. These rules are as follows:
A. All Students Are
Entitled to a Grade
If a student is to receive truly an
equal opportunity, he or she should be given the opportunity to
receive a grade. If the IEP does not reference any grade
modifications, the assumption by the Office for Civil Rights is
that the student will be graded in accord with the school's
general grading standards. Thus, there should be no informal
grade modifications outside of those established through the IEP
team process. Simply put, students with disabilities should
receive grades and credit in the same manner as other students
when they complete the same courses as other students.
B. All Students with
Disabilities Are Entitled to Grades That Reflect the Level of
Work They Are Capable of Completing, Consistent with the Iep
Authorized Accommodations and Modifications to the Core
This rule is true regardless of
whether or not the student is receiving services in a regular or
special class. This basic rule only works effectively if the IEP
Team sets academic standards that will balance the student's
exceptional needs with challenging academic levels.
C. High, Low or Modified
Grades May Be Given to Students with Disabilities as Long as
Those Grades Are Available to All Students
A student's grade may not be
modified solely on the basis of his or her special education
status. To do such is to create a discriminatory classification.
It is permissible to give modified grades, so long as the
modified grades are available to all students, not just students
in special education.
Any modification should be
reflected in the IEP and should be directly related to the
student's disability. If the modification is so extreme that it
significantly alters the assignment or assessment, then it
should be identified as an alternative assignment or assessment.
Any such alternative assignments or assessments should be stated
in the IEP and should relate directly to the student's
When an IEP Team determines that a student with a more severe
disability can not attain the school's content standards for a
given course despite accommodations and modifications, then it
is proper for progress toward IEP goals to be considered an
appropriate measurement for grading.
D. Modified Grades May Be
Identified as Such on Report Card or Transcript as Long as the
Student's Special Education Status Remains Confidential
As a general rule, modified grades
may be reflected as such on the report card or transcript
The decision to provide the
modified grade is made on an individual basis;
The decision provide the modified
grade is reflected in the IEP;
The modified grade is available to
all students (special education, general and gifted); and
The decision to allow the modified
grade is not made on the basis of the student's status as a
special education student.
E. Classes Should Not Be
Identified as Special Education Classes on a Report Card or
The Office for Civil Rights [OCR]
strongly discourages the use of transcript labels that identify
a course as a special education course. OCR
encourages the use of more generic descriptors, such as "Basic,"
"Level One," or "Practical," in describing courses that are
targeted to special education students.
F. General Education
Teachers Should Collaborate with Special Education Teachers
When both the general educator and
the special educator are providing instruction to a student with
disabilities, it is advisable that the teachers collaboratively
reach an appropriate grade. This requires that the general
educator and special educator develop a mutual grading
arrangement in the context of an IEP meeting and that the
arrangement is indicated in the IEP.
G. Students with
Disabilities May Not Be Excluded from Recognition on the Honor
Roll or Other Such Academic Honors on the Basis of Their Status
Students must be given an equal
opportunity to participate in courses at all levels for which
they are qualified or meet course requirements. A District may
establish a neutral system of weighted grades, or "core course"
criteria for honor roll, as long as the standards are founded on
legitimate educational standards. The practical result may be
that certain students with disabilities will be unable to
perform at the levels required for these honors.
H. Pass/Fail Grades Should
Only Be Awarded If They Are Allowed as a Legitimate Modified
Grade in the IEP or Are Available to All Students in the Course
The grading matrix for a special education student should not
differ from other students unless the difference is the result
of a legitimate modification in the IEP. An example of an
inappropriate grading practice would be for all special
education children to receive a pass/fail grade in a course when
the non-identified students receive a letter grade.
I. An Appropriate Grading
Policy must Be Simple to Understand, Provide Adequate Notice to
Parents and Students, and Provide Informed Choice as to Whether
to Accept Accommodations Which Affect Grading
Communication with parents
regarding grades is vital. The time to do such is during the IEP
Team meeting. Parents are entitled to notice of the District's
grading policy and an explanation of the grading policy. Parents
of special education students should be offered an informed
choice as to whether or not to accept accommodations and/or
modifications that will affect grading. They should also be made
aware of the adverse impact that a lack of accommodation or
modification may have on promotion.
V. Teacher Comments
Beyond simply providing a letter
grade, teacher comments on progress reports or report cards can
be the impetus for complaints by parents and students. Comments
are often necessary to convey specific information regarding a
student's progress, or lack of progress, as well as to document
a student's classroom behavior. However, teachers should use
caution to assure that all comments are made timely and
accurately, and should maintain records throughout the marking
period. This will go far toward refuting any contention that a
student is being discriminated against because of behavior
related to his or her disability.
In the recent case of Coventry
(R.I.) Public School, February 16, 1999, 31 IDELR 60, an
English teacher wrote the following comment on a student's
report card: "behavior needs improvement". The parent complained
that the comment was made solely because of parent filing a
complaint, since all of the student's previous comment reports
had been good. OCR found that the teacher's comments were not
made in retaliation for the parent's action in filing a
complaint. The hearing officer relied upon the teacher's
testimony that the comment was warranted based on student's
misbehavior on several prior occasions. In particular, the
officer noted that there were at least two indications of some
misconduct contained in the teacher's prior reports.
In the special education context,
disputes have often arisen over the subject of promotion, in
particular, over the practice known as "social promotion".
Parents and students have frequently argued on both sides of the
equation; that is, they may argue for promotion when the
district does not believe that the student has earned it, and
they may argue against promotion when the district believes that
promotion is in the student's best interest, whether because of
academic or social factors, or a combination thereof. The key
here is for the district, via the classroom teachers, to provide
the student with the opportunity to earn promotion, and to
carefully consider and document the reasons behind the
district's decision to recommend for or against promotion. Even
if the district gives in to pressure from a parent in
determining whether or not to promote, the basis for the
district's recommendation should be carefully documented.
Hernando (FL) County School,
February 12, 1999, 31 IDELR 89, is a case demonstrating this
debate and showing how a district acted properly under the
circumstances. This case involved a student with diabetes and
asthma. After an evaluation, the district determined that he did
not have a specific learning disability. In his fourth grade
year, the student had a Section 504 plan, which focused on the
effects the student's disabilities had on his academic
performance. The district recommended against promotion to 5th
grade because of academic deficiencies, but relented upon the
parent's insistence. In the 6th grade, the student had
thirty-six unexcused absences and failed five classes. The
school refused to promote the student to 7th grade. His parent
contended that the absences were due to the student's diabetes,
and that failure to promote was therefore discriminatory. The
hearing officer ruled that the district did not discriminate
based on disability when it failed to promote. The officer
determined, based upon the student's record and teacher
testimony, that the decision was based on the student's failure
to master the subject matter. Given the accommodations that the
district had provided, including a liberal policy for allowing
the student to make-up missed work, the student's performance
was not hampered by any failure of the district to accommodate
VII. The Impact of Failing
Failing grades are frequently
considered an indicator that the district has failed to provide
a student with a free appropriate education at public expense.
In Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v.
Rowley, 458 US 176, 204 (1982) the Supreme Court observed
that an IEP must be "reasonably calculated to enable the child
to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." One
can anticipate that parents and student advocates will construe
a failing grade as indicative of a student's failure to meet
their IEP objectives. Therefore, if an educator dispenses a
failing grade for any reason other than a student's failure to
meet their IEP goals and objectives, it is incumbent upon that
educator to provide an explanation in the accompanying progress
report. Absent such, school districts are exposed to the
rational argument that failing grades are indicative of the
IEP's failure rather than the student's failure.
VIII. Peer Grading
Many educators use peer grading in
the classroom. Unfortunately, there is an increasing weight of
opinion that this methodology violates FERPA. At this juncture,
evaluators should probably avoid peer grading.
The grading of students with
disabilities requires that educators develop IEPs that clearly
define the extent to which the student will be graded with or
without modification. The IEP should clearly spell out any
modifications or accommodations that change the manner in which
a student will be graded. Successful grading will turn on the
extent to which educators know the IEP and understand how the
IEP impacts grading. The equal opportunity that the District
seeks to offer is equal opportunity for success - an IEP should
afford that equal opportunity.