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Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities


In a recent Dear Colleague Letter from the Office of Special Education stated that, “Ensuring that all children, including children with disabilities, are held to rigorous academic standards and high expectations is a shared responsibility for all of us. To help make certain that children with disabilities are held to high expectations and have meaningful access to a State’s academic content standards, we write to clarify that an individualized education program (IEP) for an eligible child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must be aligned with the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled. Research has demonstrated that children with disabilities who struggle in reading and mathematics can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services, and supports are provided. Conversely, low expectations can lead to children with disabilities receiving less challenging instruction that reflects below grade-level content standards, and thereby not learning what they need to succeed at the grade in which they are enrolled."

State Definition

  • Under ESSA, states are required to provide guidance on identifying students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. In Wisconsin, a student with the most significant cognitive disability:
    • typically characterized as functioning at least two and a half to three standard deviations below the mean in both adaptive behavior and cognitive functioning; and
    • performs substantially below grade level expectations on the academic content standards for the grade in which they are enrolled, even with the use of adaptations and accommodations; and
    • a student who requires extensive, direct individualized instruction and substantial supports to achieve measurable gains, across all content areas and settings.

Participation in Alternate Academic Achievement Standards

Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are instructed towards alternate academic achievement standards called the Essential Elements in English language arts, mathematics, and science. These standards promote access to the general curriculum and are expectations of what students with the most significant cognitive disabilities know and can do.

Participation in Alternate Assessment

Additionally, under ESSA, the number of students who may take the alternate assessment is limited to no more than 1.0 percent of the total number of all students in the state who are assessed in a given subject (i.e., reading/language arts, mathematics, and science). 34 CFR 200.6(c)(2). For more information and guidance on the 1% rule, as it relates to ESSA, please see the FAQ and resource section.

Additional Resources

3. One Percent Participation