NCEO - National Center on Educational Outcomes

Academic Standards and Students with Disabilities


Academic content and achievement standards are central to ensuring that all students have access to and make progress in the general curriculum. Academic content standards define what all students should know and be able to do; academic achievement standards define how well students must perform to be considered proficient. Together, academic content and achievement standards are key elements in standards-based accountability systems.

In 2009, the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers worked with several other organizations to develop and validate a set of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics were developed to reflect the knowledge and skills that all students need for success in college and careers. Nearly all states have adopted the CCSS, and consortia of states are developing new common assessments based on them.

Although academic standards define the learning targets for all students, teachers use a variety of curriculum materials and instructional strategies to help students reach those targets. For students with disabilities, teachers tailor the curriculum (based on the academic standards) and instructional strategies to meet individual learning needs. According to current federal policies, all students with disabilities (including those in alternate assessments) are to be assessed on their skills and knowledge in the grade-level academic content. Student academic achievement standards are defined in terms of proficiency levels—basic, proficient, and advanced, for example. Proficiency levels are defined by states and may be the same or different for students participating in regular and alternate assessments.

If students with disabilities are to benefit from standards-based reform, they must be included in each step of the standards-based accountability system. Students need access to rigorous standards through high quality curriculum and instruction. They also need reliable, valid, and fair assessment of progress toward the standards. Standards-based accountability systems provide an opportunity to measure both access to and progress in the general curriculum for students with disabilities. Careful alignment of student learning to the standards set for all students will ensure that progress, not just access, occurs.