IEP vs. 504: A Closer Look at Accommodations

IEP vs. 504: A Closer Look at Accommodations

Accessible education is a critical foundation in ensuring a better future for individuals, and society as a whole. But quality, accessible education isn't just for those who are considered "abled" by broader standards. It's a fundamental right for students with disabilities to have access to the same opportunities as their peers. It's up to schools to provide them with the tools and accommodations they need to thrive in an educational setting. And at New Dawn Charter High School, we're committed to just that.

But this isn't a new concept. In fact, parents have been pioneering disability advocacy protections in the education system since the 1950s. In this article, we'll look at a bit of the history of disability protections within educational institutions. Then, we'll examine the differences between an IEP vs. 504, two types of learning accommodations, and how New Dawn implements both.

The history of disability advocacy and legislation in educational contexts

Prior to the mid-20th century, many individuals with disabilities faced widespread discrimination and exclusion from education providers. Fortunately, the landscape began to shift with the emergence of the disability rights movement and similar advocacy movements.

One of the landmark legislative victories was the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  in 1975. This mandated that all children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education tailored to their unique needs. This legislation laid the foundation for the development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and other support systems to see that students with disabilities have access to comprehensive educational opportunities. Subsequent legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, further strengthened protections and accommodations. They paved the way for greater inclusivity and accessibility in schools and universities.

Defining the basics: IEP vs. 504

Now that we've read some history, let's look at the two kinds of learning accommodations a bit more closely.

What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

An IEP is a document created for students with disabilities who are attending public schools. It is a legally binding plan that outlines the specific educational needs of a student. It also describes the educational program and related services designed to meet those needs. The IEP is developed through a collaborative process involving educators, parents or guardians, and sometimes the student, depending on their age and level of involvement.

Key components of an IEP typically include:

  • Present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP). This section describes the student's current performance levels in various areas, including academic skills, functional skills. It also includes any other relevant information, like social and behavioral skills.
  • Annual goals. These are specific, measurable objectives that the student is expected to achieve within a year. Goals are typically related to areas of need identified in the PLAAFP section.
  • Special education and related services. This outlines the special education and related services that will be provided to the student to support their educational goals. This includes specialized instruction, speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, and other services as determined by the IEP team.
  • Accommodations and modifications. The IEP includes a list of accommodations and modifications that will be provided to the student to support their learning and give them access to educational resources. Accommodations are changes to how instruction is delivered or assessed, while modifications are changes to what is taught or expected.
  • Participation in assessments. The IEP team determines whether the student will participate in standardized assessments and, if so, what accommodations or modifications are needed to support their participation.
  • Transition planning (for students aged 16 and older). For students nearing the end of their high school education, the IEP includes transition planning to help them prepare for post-secondary education, employment, and independent living.

IEPs are designed to be flexible documents that can be reviewed and revised to reflect the student's progress and changing needs. The goal is to see that each student with a disability receives a free and appropriate public education. Ultimately, the goal is to prepare them for a healthy, safe, and thriving future.

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is a legal document that outlines accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities to give them equal access to education. It's named after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal financial assistance.

Unlike an IEP, which is more comprehensive and designed for students who require specialized instruction, a 504 Plan typically focuses on accommodations within the regular classroom setting. The purpose of a 504 Plan is to level the playing field for students with disabilities, allowing them to fully participate in the general educational environment.

Here are some typical 504 Plan accommodations you might see implemented:

  • Extended time on tests and assignments. Students may be allowed additional time to complete exams, quizzes, homework assignments, and in-class tasks. They may also receive accommodations, such as taking tests in a quiet room, using a computer for written responses, or providing oral exams.
  • Use of assistive technology. Access to assistive devices or software for learning or communication, including screen readers, speech-to-text assistive software, or adaptive keyboards.
  • Modified assignments. Adjustments to assignments or assessments to accommodate the student's learning needs, like shortened assignments or alternative forms of evaluation.
  • Note-taking support. Provision of notes from the teacher or access to a peer note-taker to help the student keep up with class lectures and discussions. Peer note-taking is a great practice, as it helps foster inclusion and cooperation between students within an education community. Instructional materials may also be modified to alternative formats, including large print, audio recordings, or digital text.
  • Behavioral supports. Implementation of strategies to support positive behavior management, like frequent breaks, visual schedules, or a designated quiet space for calming down. It may also involve placement inside the classroom that minimizes distractions or provides easier access to instructional materials.
  • Physical accommodations. Modifications to the physical environment, such as wheelchair ramps, accessible seating, or adaptive equipment.

What's the difference between an IEP vs. 504?

While these two kinds of plans are similar, they do have some key differences.

Scope of support

IEP. Provides specialized instruction tailored to the student's unique needs. This may include services like individualized teaching strategies, therapy, counseling, or assistive technology. It requires a team approach involving parents/guardians, teachers, special education professionals, and sometimes other specialists, who collaborate to develop and review the student's educational program. 

504 Plan. This focuses on accommodations and modifications within the general education classroom to give students with disabilities equal access to educational opportunities. Like an IEP, it typically involves collaboration between parents/guardians, teachers, and school administrators to determine appropriate accommodations for the student. Here's the difference: while input from specialists may be considered, the process is generally less formalized than that of an IEP.

Eligibility criteria

IEP. Students must meet specific criteria for one or more of the 13 categories of learning disabilities outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These disabilities significantly impact the student's ability to learn and require specialized instruction.

504 Plan. Students must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including learning, walking, seeing, hearing, or speaking.

Legal framework and protections

IEP. These are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It mandates that schools develop individualized education plans for eligible students with disabilities. Schools must provide a free and appropriate public education to students with an IEP.

504 Plan. Governed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal financial assistance. Schools must provide reasonable accommodations to provide equal access.

IEP and 504 Plan implementation at NDCHS

New Dawn Charter High School is committed to ensuring students have all the appropriate accommodations and support they need to graduate high school and thrive in higher education and the workforce. In fact, New Dawn is dedicated to a "full inclusion" model of learning, with over 80% of special needs students and those with IEPs fully integrated into general classes, which are smaller than average public schools.

If you're a parent considering New Dawn Charter High School for your student, you might be wondering how the process works when a student with an IEP or 504 plan is ready to transfer.

When a student is first considered as an applicant to New Dawn, administration and staff gather as much helpful information about the student's educational experience and background as possible. When an applicant has a learning disability or physical disability and corresponding IEP or 504 Plan, New Dawn staff meets with a parent coordinator to review it and determine whether it's up-to-date and crafted properly to meet the student's needs. While New Dawn has much more experience implementing IEPs, we have had students with 504 Plans over the years, and we've seamlessly integrated their accommodation plans into their education experience.

Once the IEP or 504 Plan has been reviewed and formalized, the student and their guardian are ready to tour the school to see whether it's a good fit. Finally, a student takes an online reading and math assessment to help determine how an IEP, 504 Plan or other learning strategies should be crafted to achieve academic success in these areas. The online assessment also helps place the student in their most appropriate grade level.

If you believe your student would be a great match for New Dawn Charter High School, check out the eligibility requirements and submit an enrollment interest form.