What Is a Learning Map Model?

The DLM Alternate Assessment System helps educators facilitate student success by illustrating the interrelation among the knowledge, skills, and understandings necessary to meet academic content standards in a learning map model. The basis of all DLM assessments, the learning map model was developed by teams of researchers through extensive review and synthesis of research literature. It undergoes continual review and refinement by experts in academic content, special education, and cognition.

Think of the learning map model as a common road map. Although students may share a common destination, they often begin their journeys from different points on the map. The learning map model helps parents and educators guide students to success by showing them where a student is now, where the student has been, and where the student is going. That is, the learning map model helps parents and educators identify a student’s current knowledge and skills, see how the student has developed over time, and look forward to more advanced academic content the student can learn next.

In short, the learning map model helps us see beyond where students are today to show us how they can get to where they need to go.

Points on a Map

The learning map model represents individual concepts and skills in points called nodes. Good instruction, however, requires far more than simply teaching individual facts or skills. Effective teaching requires understanding how knowledge and skills are connected. That’s why the learning map model also shows the many connections, or relationships among its nodes, to describe the different ways students reach the same goals.

As of April 2016, there are 2,089 nodes in the English language arts portion of the learning map model, with 5,045 connections among them. The mathematics portion of the learning map model contains 2,399 nodes, with 5,200 connections among them. 150 foundational nodes associated with both content areas support both sections of the map. The Consortium also recently began development of a new portion of the learning map dedicated to science.

Measuring Success

Students who take DLM assessments are instructed and assessed on Essential Elements. Essential Elements are grade-level-specific expectations about what students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should know and be able to do. Essential Elements are related to college- and career-readiness standards for students in the general population.


DLM assessments are aligned to Essential Elements, and the learning map model is used to identify the nodes to be assessed. But unlike traditional assessments, DLM tests are tailored to measure each student’s academic achievement with the help of linkage levels, which are small collections of nodes.

Each Essential Element's target linkage level is most closely aligned with the knowledge, skills, and understandings described by that Essential Element; the target level, therefore, is the standard linkage level for assessment. However, students who have not yet reached the target may instead be assessed at a precursor linkage level, which precedes the target. In addition to an initial level, each Essential Element for English language arts and mathematics includes two additional precursor linkage levels: the distal and proximal precursors, respectively. Science Essential Elements condense these two additional precursors into one precursor linkage level. Each English language arts and mathematics Essential Element also defines a successor linkage level, which represents a step beyond the target expectations, for testing students who have mastered the target. Science Essential Elements do not define successor levels.

The graphics below illustrate example Essential Elements and the linkage levels used for assessing those Essential Elements, including all five linkage levels applicable to English language arts and mathematics.

Linkage Levels

  • Initial Precursor (IP)
  • Distal Precursor (DP)
  • Proximal Precursor (PP)
  • Target (T)
  • Successor (S)