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Strategic and Specially Designed Instruction: Leveraging Data Sources to Ensure General Curriculum Access

Students with disabilities are faced with a variety of challenges as they encounter the general education curriculum. To ensure that students have meaningful access to and make progress in the general education curriculum, the special education teacher must strategically design supports and instruction. Developing an individualized educational program (IEP) requires a thoughtful review of all of the available data sources before drafting the IEP.

A Present Level of Academic and Functional Performance (PLAFP) is “… a summary of baseline information that indicates the student’s academic achievement, identifies current functional performance, and provides an explanation of how the disability affects the student’s involvement/progress in participating in the general curriculum” (Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2011, p. 12). The PLAFP must be based on current student performance data in both grade-level academic standards of learning (SOL) and functional performance.

While initial eligibility assessment data may be included in the PLAFP, it cannot be the sole basis for developing a standards-based IEP. Rather, special educators must seek out all data sources that include a student’s proficiency with grade-level standards and functional performance. However, while the special educator may facilitate IEP development, the process should be collaborative and include the student, parents or guardians, general education teachers, and any other service providers. The special educator needs access to all of the student’s assessment data in order to effectively facilitate the development of an appropriate IEP and strategically develop a plan for specially designed instruction (SDI).

Table 1 provides examples of available standards-based data reports.

 Table 1

Virginia Standards-Based Data Sources

Data Source


Virginia SOL Student Detail Reportstudentdetail Provides the student’s overall scaled score, performance level, and a breakdown of scaled scores in specific reporting categories (VDOE, 2015b).
Virginia SOL Student Detail by Question (SDBQ) Reportstudentdetailbyques(formerly Student Performance by Question SPBQ) Provides the student’s detailed performance in reporting categories with specific item descriptors that align with the Virginia SOL (VDOE, 2015a).
Algebra Readiness Diagnostic Test (ARDT) Student Detail Reportstudentdetailreport Provides overall performance by strand, data for use in determining need for math intervention/remediation, specific item performance by SOL, an estimate of item difficulty, and whether the student answered the item correctly (VDOE, 2013).
Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS- PreK, PALS-K, and PALS Plus for grades 1-8)pals Provides teachers with explicit information about the student’s knowledge of SOL-aligned literacy fundamentals so they can more effectively design literacy instruction (Invernizzi, 2014, pp. 5-7).


Special educators should also seek out additional standards-based student performance data. For example, division-level benchmark assessments, aligned intervention systems or programs, and classroom-level curriculum-based measures can provide a wealth of information about what students know and are able to do in relation to standards. If sufficient data is not available, further assessments may be administered to determine the student’s actual proficiency with grade-level standards and sub-skills that support grade-level standards.

When all of the student performance data is collected, the special educator can then analyze it. Teachers should begin the analysis by looking at the broadest reports to identify general areas of strength and need. Broader reports might only identify reporting categories such as “Use word analysis strategies and word reference materials” or “Probability, Statistics, Patterns, Functions, and Algebra” (VDOE, 2015b). While scaled scores and performance descriptors from these broader reporting categories may be appropriate for inclusion in the PLAFP to identify general areas of strength and need with grade-level standards, additional detail about specific content and skill or process performance will be necessary to develop standards-based goals and strategic SDI. A process for analyzing and utilizing specific standards-based data sources is detailed in Figure 1.

More specific standards performance details can be obtained from the Student Detail by Question Report (SDBQ) (VDOE, 2015a), where the student’s item performance is broken down into reporting categories and an item-by-item record of responses with SOL-aligned item descriptors. This report includes the most specific standards-based performance information; however, caution should be used when analyzing individual student performance. Not all standards or item descriptors are included in every version of the SOL assessment and, therefore, may not represent the student’s day-to-day classroom performance. The IEP team should reflect on the relevance of these score reports and seek additional data when necessary.

Figure 1. Analyzing and utilizing standards-based data sources.


Regardless of the data sources or processes used, there must be direct and strategic links between the PLAFP, standards-based goals, and SDI. Such strategic standards-based analysis and planning also helps special education teachers to deepen their content curriculum knowledge. When special educators engage in this type of analysis, they are able to facilitate the development of IEPs that are grounded in specific student performance data that is linked to standards. This, in turn, allows the IEP team to focus on a plan that prioritizes relevant content knowledge, skills, and processes to strategically design targeted specialized instruction. SDI that is strategic and targeted will help special education teachers focus their instructional efforts and thereby support improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

Links to Virginia Standards-Based Resources:


Invernizzi, M. (2014). PALS plus: Phonological awareness literacy screening grades 1-8 technical reference. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia: Curry School of Education.
Virginia Department of Education. (2011). Guidance document: Standards-based individualized educational program (IEP). Retrieved from
Virginia Department of Education. (2013). Algebra readiness diagnostic test (ARDT): Tests, reports, and score interpretation information for teachers. Retrieved from
Virginia Department of Education. (2015a). Student detail by question report. Richmond, VA: Author.
Virginia Department of Education. (2015b). Student detail report. Richmond, VA: Author.
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