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Learner Characteristics

Students who participate in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP) represent a very
diverse group of learners. While these students share some common learning challenges, each
has unique skills, preferences, and experiences that he/she brings to the learning environment.
As a field, we recognize the importance of educational teams making deliberate and thoughtful
decisions about whether a student meets the participation guidelines for the VAAP and, if so,
how each student will receive instruction in a way that provides access to and progress in the
general education curriculum. IEP teams are charged with developing a comprehensive program
that addresses the full range of learning needs of this group of students that prepares them for
generalization of skills to a variety of post-school environments.

These responsibilities require team members to plan and deliver instruction using proven,
research-based techniques that result in positive student outcomes. Effective instruction is based
on a clear understanding of learner needs and characteristics. The following list represents a
number of documented characteristics of students who meet the participation guidelines for

Students who participate in alternate assessment may exhibit

some or all of the following characteristics:

Communication difficulties that affect self-determination, behavior, social interactions,

and participation in multiple learning environments.

Uneven learning patterns in all domains including cognition, communication,

socialization, and self-help.

Other disabling conditions, including physical disabilities, sensory challenges, and

medical needs, that impact health, stamina, and engagement in learning tasks.

Motor impairments that make participation in routine tasks challenging.

Difficulty learning new tasks, maintaining new skills, and generalizing skills to new

Individualized methods of accessing information (tactile, visual, auditory, multi-sensory).

Requirements for extensive and long-term supports to access the general curriculum,
participate in multiple learning environments, and live, work, and play in the community.

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Educational Implications
Best practices have evolved in this field as strategies to address the learner characteristics
outlined above (Orelove, Sobsey, & Silberman, 2004). Again, each child has very individualized
needs, but general themes for instruction include:

Development of a personalized curriculum (Knowlton, 1998) that provides instruction in

the general curriculum and a sequence to instruction to insure positive post-school

Prioritization of skills with strong family and student input.

Emphasis on active student involvement and engagement, with supports provided as

necessary to facilitate participation.

Collaborative teaming between and among family members, special educators, general
educators, related service providers and other team members, as appropriate.

Heavy focus on transition from grade to grade, school to school, and, most importantly,
school to work.

Delivery of systematic instruction that teaches meaningful, age-appropriate skills and

relies on student performance data to monitor gains and progress towards goals.

Emphasis on communication development with choice-making and self-determination

deliberately taught.

Implementation and Theory of Learning

Snell and Browder (2000) encourage educational teams to tailor instruction to fit the student’s
current stage of learning for a particular skill. Understanding the student’s skill level will help us
set appropriate expectations and guide decision making about the use of prompting and
reinforcement strategies. The following is a brief description of each stage with basic
implications for instruction.

Acquisition: Student is learning the skill and is achieving at 60% or less on the steps of the task.
When learning a new skill, all of us require more support and assistance. During this stage, the
teacher is careful to provide enough prompting to reduce errors and encourage successive
approximations. The teaching strategies should be outlined and consistent across instructors
with plenty of practice provided so that the student can become more comfortable with the task.
Feedback during this stage of learning needs to be frequent and specific.

Learner Characteristics 2
Maintenance: Student is provided regular opportunities to use the skill, thus reducing the
likelihood that the skill might be forgotten. The teacher is beginning to reduce the level of
prompting and feedback. The student is encouraged to look for and rely on natural cues in the

Fluency: Student accuracy has exceeded 60%, and the focus of instruction is increasing speed
and/or quality of performance. While the student’s accuracy on the steps of the task may not be
at criterion, the student is no longer a “beginner” with this skill. Again, instruction focuses on
increasing the student’s level of independence, reliance on natural cues and reinforcers, and self-

Generalization: Student is expected to use the skill at the appropriate time and place and to
engage in problem solving related to the task. At this stage of learning, performance should not
be impeded by changes in instructors, settings, or materials. Students will need to be
systematically exposed to a variety of changes in the task so that they can practice appropriate

Case study demonstrating stages of learning:

Using Aligned Math Standard: M-NS2 a,b

The student given a set of ten or fewer objects will: a) tell how many are in the set by
counting orally; b) select the corresponding numeral from a given set.
Natascha is a teenager who has Down syndrome and dual sensory impairments. Natascha
attends her local high school where she is learning the use of critical math skills to make
purchases in her community. Natascha has difficulty with expressive communication and relies
on a combination of verbalizations, signs, and a communication booklet with pictures to express
wants and needs. After evaluating Natascha’s current math skills, the team decided that counting
with 1:1 correspondence is a high priority academic skill. Shopping activities provides a
functional context and are highly motivating. The team also decided that Natascha would
practice 1:1 counting within the context of using a “next dollar up” strategy to pay for items at
the store. For example, if the item to be purchased is $3.50, Natascha rote counts to the next
dollar ($4.00) and then uses 1:1 correspondence to count the bills that are needed to be given to
the cashier. During the acquisition, or beginning stage of learning, Natascha required frequent
practice of the skill, close proximity to the teacher, consistent prompts and specific feedback. As
Natascha began to develop more fluency (and maintaining the skill because of regular
opportunities to practice), the instructor began to move away Natascha during the activity and
encouraged Natascha to look to the cashier for directions and assistance with the task. Various
cashiers were provided information about ways to encourage Natascha to use her booklet when
they did not understand her clearly. Generalization occurred as Natascha was provided
opportunities to practice these skills in multiple stores where the requirements were slightly
different. Staff gradually introduced rote counting and 1:1 counting to 10, adjusting prompts and
feedback as required. It was clear that Natascha had learned the problem-solving component
when she reached into her pocket to pull out a debit card because she did not have enough cash
to the do the “next dollar up” strategy.

Learner Characteristics 3
References and Resources:

Browder, D. M. (2001). Curriculum and assessment for students with moderate and severe
disabilities. New York: Guildford Publications.

Kleinert, H.L, & Kearns, J. (2001). Alternate assessment: Measuring outcomes and support for
students with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing

Knowlton, E. (1998). Considerations in the design of a personalized curriculum for students with
developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental
Disabilities, 33, 95-107.

Orelove, F.P. Sobsey, D., & Silberman, R.K. (2004). Educating children with multiple
disabilities: A collaborative approach (4th ed..). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Snell, M.E., & Brown, F. (2000). Development and implementation of education programs. In
M.E. Snell, & Brown (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (5th ed., pp. 115-
172). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

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