Six Successes and Ten Strategies: Students on Alternate Assessments in Equity-Based Inclusive Education

The Cecil County team of committed educators are continually asking the question, “How do we promote membership, participation, and learning for all students in general education classrooms?”  We are seeing positive results by way of increased socialization, communication, decreases in behaviors, and evidence that students are accessing and learning grade-level curriculum!  Consider the following examples:

A first-grade student with autism (formerly on track for alternate assessment) is now doing grade-level work and the paraprofessional is supporting the class as a whole, rather than acting solely as a 1:1 support for this student.  What made the difference? Educators hold high expectations for the student and ensure she is a fully participating member in the general education instruction.

A breakthrough moment occurred for a sixth-grade student with challenging behavior when the teachers created alternative pathways to the regular curriculum instead of an alternate curriculum taught with different materials in a separate part of the room.  The student was treated as a full-time member and felt a sense of belonging, and the challenging behaviors decreased.

In a kindergarten class, a five-year-old who does not speak with his voice is in general education 100% of the time.  As a full-time member of the class, his peers provide support for him to participate in whole-group instruction, and he has moved from running around the room to participating in classroom routines without paraeducator support.

Another student in kindergarten who did not use her voice to communicate, and whose behaviors challenged the educators, is now fully included and using augmentative and alternative communication  with core vocabulary connected to the classroom curriculum and routines.  She is now also beginning to use her voice to express herself.

In fifth grade, an 11-year-old boy with significant disabilities who does not speak with his voice was in a general education class, but existed as an “island in the back of the room,” working on alternate activities.  Educators now adapt materials to grade-level standards and he is included in general education classroom routines. The special education teacher and general education teacher collaborate to address the student’s needs and the student is successfully learning grade level curriculum.

A third-grade student with autism was receiving all of his education—except science and social studies—outside of the classroom.  He moved from part-time participation in general education with expectations for alternative outcomes to full time-membership in the general education curriculum.  He is now following a general diploma track!

Cecil County strives to achieve membership, participation, and learning for students with significant disabilities in many ways. Here are ten strategies related to the student successes described above:

  • Students attend the school ordinarily attended by children in their local community.
  • Student are members of age-appropriate general education classrooms, which includes their names on class lists, job lists, and so forth.
  • The school delivers related services to the students primarily in general education classrooms and/or during times of the day that coincide with the emphasized skills.
  • Natural supports such as peers, classroom teachers, and other members of the school community are available to provide assistance, scaffold interactions, give encouragement, and develop social relationships/friendships.
  • Communication materials and instruction, including AAC devices, are provided to students who need them to communicate content and messages that are similar to their classmates’.
  • Students participate in the same instructional routines as their classmates: whole-class, small group, partners, one-on-one, etc.
  • In small group activities, students are supported to share information, take notes, and socialize. In whole-class discussions, students are supported to brainstorm, call out answers, take notes, and engage in social side talk.
  • Students transition between classes with other students, arriving and leaving at the same time.
  • Students are supported to complete assignments and other work products commensurate with their peers and aligned with the grade-level curriculum.
  • Students demonstrate classroom-based learning through a variety of methods monitored by the classroom teacher and based on high expectations of all class members.

These successes are the direct result of administrative support for equity-based inclusion, collaboration among educators, partnerships with the families, and attention to full-time membership, participation, and learning.

-Michael McSheehan, SWIFT Technical Assistance Coordinator 

Photo of blog author.Michael McSheehan serves as the Coordinator of Technical Assistance for the School-wide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center, which was established in 2012. He is a Project Director at the University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability and National Center on Inclusive Education. Prior to working with the SWIFT Center, Michael led a variety of state and federally funded initiatives to advance research, policy, and practice in inclusive education, alternate assessment, collaborative teaming, and Response to Intervention (RtI). For example, he was a developer, researcher, and co-author of The Beyond Access Model, an intensive supports planning model for teams working with students with significant disabilities. Michael also helped lead a five-year, state-wide project to develop and implement a Response-to-Intervention model for academic and behavioral supports with seven elementary schools and five school districts in New Hampshire.

A teacher sits at a table with several kids, who are raising their hands.

Understanding intersectionality is critical to advancing educational equity for all

People have multiple identities and group memberships with which they identify and find meaning. Think about your own identities, such as your profession, race or ethnicity, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status, whether you follow a particular religion or faith tradition, whether you have a dis/ability* or are non-disabled, your home language, sexual orientation, and where you live or grew up. All of these characteristics—some of which you chose and some of which you did not—shape how you experience everyday life. These identities often determine the extent to which you are afforded privileges that make navigating social systems and institutions (i.e. school, housing, financial, medical, legal, and law enforcement), accessing resources, and exerting personal power or agency within these systems relatively easy or difficult. If your identities place you in various non-dominant communities that are often marginalized in our society, then you likely have to contend with multiple systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, and ableism. These interconnecting systems of oppression have compounding impacts and can cause harm.

As with racism, sexism, classism and ableism—to name a few—exist when institutional and personal policies, structures, practices, and beliefs produce barriers to accessing power and resources based on specific identity markers, which create systems of oppression that marginalize individuals and groups. Intersectionality, a concept defined by Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), describes the social, economic, and political ways in which identity-based systems of oppression connect, overlap, and influence one another. In my own lived experiences as a Black woman with a dis/ability, I often deal with compounded micro- and macro-aggressions relating to my gender, race, and dis/ability.

When we examine the impact of intersectionality in schools, the data are quite revealing. Here are a few findings related to treatment of marginalized students in American schools.

Class and race: Students of color in schools located in dis-invested communities are less likely to receive coursework that is targeted to grade-appropriate standards, reflects higher-level cognitive demand, and is meaningfully engaging and relevant.

Sex and race: A study conducted by Crenshaw, Ocen, and Nanda (2015) examining the experiences of girls in school found that two percent of White girls were subjected to exclusionary suspensions compared to 12 percent of Black girls. The literature suggests that girls of color face higher rates of suspension and expulsion for subjective behavioral infractions. The study revealed that teachers sometimes exercised disciplinary measures against Black girls to encourage them to adopt more “acceptable” qualities of femininity, often related to looks and demeanor—standards that appear to reflect a White, middle-class idea of femininity.

Gender identity, sexual orientation, and race or national origin: Students of color who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced higher frequencies of victimization than White LGBTQ students, based on their race/ethnicity, as well as their sexual orientation or gender non-conformity. (GLSEN, 2015).

Race or national origin, class, and dis/ability: Research cites factors such as race, ethnicity or national origin, language, and poverty play a role in disproportionate representation in special education, as well as in specific special education categories, placement in more restrictive learning environments, and in exclusionary and punitive disciplinary actions. (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2016).

Educators committed to ensuring educational equity and social justice need to be cognizant of intersectionality and aware of the intersecting oppressions experienced by many of the students they serve.

About a year or so ago, I was co-facilitating a professional learning experience for a group of 50 special educators. The presentation focused on discussing instructional practices for improving the reading achievement of students receiving special education services. My co-facilitators and I shared information about an instructional framework that combined culturally sustaining practices and principles of Universal Design for Learning for improving literacy (Waitoller & King Thorius, 2016). During the session, one of the participants asked, “Why are we learning about culturally sustaining practices, when this professional development is about students with dis/abilities?”

What this educator failed to recognize is the relevance of implementing practices that are responsive and relevant to students’ cultural backgrounds, conflating culture with race. He did not understand that as members of a marginalized community, students with dis/abilities may have shared experiences with other marginalized communities. Not recognizing people with disabilities as a socio-political group, whose voices and perspectives are often underrepresented in curricula and decision-making in our school systems, this educator did not comprehend the importance of including instructional material that represent alternative points of view, experiences, and approaches to problem-solving, characteristics of culturally responsive and sustaining practices, for the instruction of students with dis/abilities.

Considering intersectionality requires equity-oriented educators to rethink interventions for redressing systemic inequities. Educators are called to re-examine and adjust practices that separate problems into discrete challenges facing specific, mutually exclusive groups and thus requiring distinct solutions. This way of thinking leads to solutions that operate in silos and can be ineffective and inadvertently perpetuate other inequities (African American Policy Forum). Equity work is grounded in an examination of how policies, practices, and structures operate with factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and dis/abilities to limit or leverage access to learning opportunities.

Demonstrating a recognition and appreciation of difference is an important step in creating supportive and inclusive learning environments. However, realizing educational equity for all students requires surfacing and redressing the structures, practices, and policies that contribute to inequitable treatment of individuals and groups in historically marginalized communities. As equity-focused educators, we must recognize and honor our own multiple identities and the multiple identities of our students, families, and co-workers. We must examine, call out, and disrupt inequitable policies and actions that operate to form multiple interconnecting systems of oppressions that affect students’ and families’ access, representation, and meaningful participation in quality learning opportunities, and the ability to enjoy positive educational outcomes.

*Dis/ability is used with a slash in this post to signal the social construction of ability and dis/ability—that is, society’s power to construct what is considered to be a disability around social expectations of normalcy and health.


Annamma, S.A., Connor, D.J., & Ferri, B.A. (2016). Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. In D.J. Connor, B.A. Ferri, & S.A. Annamma (Eds.), DisCrit: Disability studies and critical race theory in education (pp. 9-32). Teachers College Press: New York.

African American Policy Forum. (n.d.). A primer on intersectionality. Retrieved from

Crenshaw, K., Ocen, P., & Nanda, J. (2015). Black Girls Matter: Pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected. African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Students. Retrieved from

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.

GLSEN (2015). The 2015 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary. Retrieved from

Waitoller, F. R., & King Thorius, K. A. (2016). Cross-pollinating culturally sustaining pedagogy and universal design for learning: Toward an inclusive pedagogy that accounts for dis/ability. Harvard Educational Review, 86(3), 366-389.

For further reading

Duncan‐Andrade, J. (2007). Gangstas, wankstas, and ridas: Defining, developing, and supporting effective teachers in urban schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(6), 617–638.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100.

Sleeter, C. E. 2005. Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. New York: Teachers College Press

Stovall, D. (2006). Urban Poetics: Poetry, social justice, and critical pedagogy in education. Urban Review 38(1), 63-80.

-Seena Skelton

Photo of blog author.Dr. Seena Skelton is the Director of Operations at the Region III Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center. They provide technical assistance, resources, professional learning opportunities, and conducts research related to equity, civil rights, and systemic school reform. Dr. Skelton has worked in the areas of systems change, school improvement, and educational equity for over 15 years.

Supporting Schoolwide Transformation

My previous experience in the Kansas City, KS School District and the New Orleans Recovery School District post-Hurricane Katrina showed me how many students, particularly students who were African-American, were deeply affected by either challenging circumstances or ineffective supports in their schooling.

But Stanton Elementary School in Washington, DC turned my training upside down.  Most of the parents at Stanton were under 23 years old, and many of the students at the school exhibited at-risk and problem behavior.  The principal was working hard to turn that school around, and if Stanton closed, the consequences would have been dramatic for the community.

Many of the behavior problems were not even specific to the classroom.  For instance, I was walking down the halls of Stanton Elementary helping with some hallway supervision and passed the boys’ restroom. A boy was sitting barefoot in a concrete sink with the water running. Worried for his safety, I stepped into the bathroom and said, “Hey, let’s move out of the sink.”  He jumped with his wet feet out of the sink into my arms.  As someone studying inclusive education, my goal was to intellectualize and create an idea of what education can be for all kids, but each and every day teachers are in classes dealing with things like this that we can’t even imagine.

My experience at Stanton Elementary made me realize how much I still had to learn about inclusive education. How do you provide support to students with the most significant needs?  The traditional Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model requires us to think about efficiencies around three levels: universal instruction, additional support, and intensified support. But what do you do when most of the school needs intensive support? Stanton clarified for me that it was time to think about Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) in a different way, as a framework to meet the needs of every single student in the building, not just the kids with IEPs.

MTSS originally emerged from Response to Intervention, which entails looking at how a student is responding to an intervention and asking what changes need to be made in order for that student to be successful.  At SWIFT, we apply MTSS to the whole school.

From the very beginning of a partnership with a state, district, or school, we ask, “Who are the children in this building? Who are the teachers and the staff and the resources in the building? What is the space that we have? How can we set up a master schedule, course curriculum, and tiered interventions to meet the needs of all kids?” MTSS in the SWIFT framework is a transformative way of thinking about education for all, instead of meeting the needs of one individual to the exclusion of others in the system.

MTSS works. Stanton Elementary was slated to close, but after implementing whole school reform, students began to excel and their grades improved. We took a whole year just to focus on behavior, and layered in academics to get that school out of crisis. The same thing happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—the adults and children in the school needed time to heal.  Then of course, SWIFT’s 64 schools in 17 districts in five states gave us lots of exemplars of effective, equitable education for all kids, including those with very significant needs.

My ideal school is one where students’ supports aren’t based on a label, or a predetermined space, slot, or funding. Instead, teachers and administrators ask themselves and each other how to best support every child who walks in those school doors. SWIFT has the tools to help make this vision a reality—the resource inventory, master schedule, tiered intervention matrix, and intervention planning are all available on our website in the SWIFT MTSS Starter Kit.

As a framework for whole school transformation, SWIFT ensures that every child and educator has the support they need to be successful in the general education classroom. Equity-based inclusion is truly a team effort, and whatever stage of implementation you are in—from visioning to sustaining—SWIFT is committed to supporting you every step of the way.

-Dr. Amy McCart

Photo of blog author.Amy McCart, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Professor with Special Graduate Faculty Status at the University of Kansas. Dr. McCart is the director of technical assistance for the SWIFT Center. Additionally, she is the principal investigator for multiple federal projects through the U.S. Department of Education to support urban schools implementing school-wide positive behavior support. As part of her work with school-wide positive behavior support, she serves as a collaborating partner in the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. Dr. McCart worked in a number of urban schools, including the Recovery School District in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, and the District of Columbia, Washington Public Schools. She was the site director at an agency supporting individuals with low incidence disabilities working to improve quality of life. She is also focused on utilizing agency-focused multi-tiered prevention to support families with mental health needs in poverty and their young children.

Transitioning to an Inclusive Setting: Five strategies for districts, schools, and families

For his first five years in public education, Simon attended a self-contained classroom in the school across town with other students who were labeled with “intellectual disabilities.” Every school day, a bus designated for Simon and his classmates pulled into Simon’s driveway and delivered him to school, where he was met by his special education assistant and escorted to his self-contained classroom.  When he wasn’t working on “life skills” with his class, Simon joined his non-disabled peers for recess on the playground and during music class.  At the end of the school day, he returned home on the bus and spent his afternoon watching TV or playing with his brother and sister.

SWIFT Guide Logo

Introducing SWIFT-FIG!

I like to think of the SWIFT features as the “Top 10 ways to make your school fully inclusive,” and SWIFT-FIG is your guide for understanding those features.


It’s About the Team

The team is everything. Whether it is a family team working together to care for a cat, or an educational team working together to educate a child, the team makes things work (or not).


True Wealth is a Sense of Belonging

We wanted the best school for our child and we found it, because inclusion is much deeper than facilities and programs. Inclusion involves everyone looking beyond what children can’t do based on their circumstances to see instead what they CAN do.

When Change Comes

Fear. Panic. Overwhelming sadness. Those were some of the emotions I felt upon hearing that our beloved principal of 12 years was being transferred to a new school. What would happen to our school? What would happen to all that has been built to support students and their success? Who would lead the charge to continue the successful practices established here?

Once I got a handle on the raw emotions that came with the announcement, I took time to think about our school, our staff, the hard work, the dedication, and all that had been established over the years to make our school a place where ALL students are accepted, loved, and given the support they need to learn and be successful. That was just it! Although the vision of a school where all students were supported, provided with opportunities for success, and expected to learn started many years ago with our principal, the reality is fully in practice today with a school-wide community that believes and practices those very basic principles daily. What an opportunity we now have to share those principles and belief system with a new administrator and new colleagues!

I know that our school and its success with students will survive this change. However, it’s not enough to “just survive.” We need to “thrive!” But how will that happen?  By continuing the practices we know are effective with students and families, and living the philosophy that the success of each student is non-negotiable.

Staff members already model for each other and function as teacher experts in a variety of areas—technology, curriculum, best practices, accommodations, supports, and lesson planning. It will be especially important for existing staff members to model and encourage the basic tenants of successful practices for new staff members. Sharing our successes with students, families, and with each other will help those practices ripple throughout the school community. Sharing our ideas and successes with elements of the curriculum—as well as best practices and accommodations that work for and with students—will help those same positive ideas and successes spread to other teachers and classrooms. Engaging in and sharing those elements of our positive practices will encourage new staff members—as well as the new principal—to want to become part of the success and support its continuation.

Continuing an atmosphere of ongoing problem solving will also be especially important. When a community is focused on problem solving, it leaves little room for negativity, defeating comments, and emotions. A problem solving attitude and expectation gives staff members a positive outlet and direction upon which to focus when things occur that are not exactly what would like to be seen or experienced. It also ensures that meeting student needs and making adjustments to meet those needs remains the focus.  This is particularly important since each year is different and student needs are ever changing.

New school-based leaders will step up to work with already established leaders to influence the continued positive student-centered decision making. Consequently, it will be imperative that effective communication continues to occur among staff members, students, families, school, and the community. Established staff must be willing to speak up, share philosophies, ask questions, and continue to problem solve to determine successful strategies and practices. Those of us who have been part of this school community cannot expect new staff members to automatically know what to do, why things are in place, and why we do what we do unless we tell them. We have to be willing and committed to talking to and with one another, as well as respectfully speaking up when we have questions or concerns. We also have to be committed to listening to one another, even if we may not agree with the other’s perspective. With the willingness and determination to keep the lines of communication open and functioning, it will ensure that, although every decision and situation may, and probably will, not be easy, it will be possible for our school to continue on a positive trajectory.

Yes, there will be differences this school year. Differences are inevitable with a change in leadership. However, it does not mean that those differences will, necessarily, fundamentally change the established positive practices of our school. It is the responsibility of those staff members who remain at our school, the families of the children we serve, and the community to look for the philosophy and practices that have, over time, proven successful and beneficial for all our students to be continued and improved upon. The bar is definitely set high.

Through the challenges and successes of the new elements of this school year—as well as in coming years—it will be imperative that we all support and encourage one another.  We will repeatedly need to remind each other why we are here, why we do what we do, and why it is important that we continue on this path.  It’s about the kids. ALL kids. When we focus on the kids and what is important for them—no matter who the other players are at the school—everything falls into place. It can and will continue to be a place where ALL students thrive.

– Teri Jones

Photo of blog author.Each day is important to every child – so we all need to make every moment count! If my thirty years in the classroom have taught me anything it is that. To me, teaching is not just a job, it’s a life’s work! My passion is helping ALL children reach their potential and I am blessed to work with some amazing professionals and even more amazing children. I hold a Master’s Degree from the University of Florida and I currently serve as the lead ESE teacher at Newberry Elementary, in Newberry, Florida.

SWIFT Spotlight on Dr. Alvin Taylor, Superintendent

In 2010, when Dr. Alvin Taylor was hired as the Superintendent for the Meridian Public School District in Mississippi, his goals were to look at student achievement, safe and orderly schools, and improving the graduation rate and overall accountability for the school district.  Becoming involved in the SWIFT Center seemed a logical way to achieve these goals. Dr. Taylor was interviewed during the SWIFT Professional Learning Institute and had this to say:

“We are excited about initiating SWIFT into our district for a number of reasons. One is the cutting edge innovation that SWIFT brings, especially when you talk about the integration of academic instruction and behavioral instruction. In the past in education, academics and behavioral instruction were seen as two separate entities. With the SWIFT program, they are meshing academic and behavioral instruction, not as two separate initiatives, but as one entity. In addition to that, they’re doing the same thing with general education and special education. Again, in the past, they were completely segregated—general education and special education were separate. SWIFT is taking the approach that general education and special education should be seen as one—working together hand-in-hand for the success of all children, and we want to be a part of that.

The outcomes that we’re anticipating from the SWIFT program? Obviously student achievement, but not just that. We’re looking at strengthening our family and community relations—our teacher/student relationships and self-esteem amongst our students, our staff, our community. That’s what I see from SWIFT. And not just identifying ourselves through a test score, but through the whole education of the child—academically AND socially.

What scares me about being a SWIFT school? I won’t say fear. I know that there’s always going to be resistance to change. When you’re talking about being innovative, that’s been a thorn in the side of public education—being innovative. I see that as a challenge.  It’s my job to be the fearless leader.  So I won’t say I have fear, but I know it’s going to be a challenge to change the culture and mindset of our community and our educators. For instance, the concept of merging general education and special education into one unit—I can see the resistance already. But we’re up for the challenge.

We’re going to address that challenge because it’s my belief that most, if not 95% of educators, are in this for what’s best for the student, what’s best for children. And if we can communicate that effectively to them that it is not in the best interest of our special needs children—or our general education children—to be segregated, then it’s not in their best interest as educators. It’s not in our best interest to separate academics and behavioral instruction. If we want the whole school to be successful, then we have to treat the whole student, and I think SWIFT is taking a head first approach and we want to be a part of that change.

Equity in excellence for all.  We’re not just looking for pockets of achievement; we want equitable achievement.  To do that, we have to educate all of our children, and not just academically, but we need to educate them socially. And we have to strengthen our relationships not just with the students, but with our parents and our community. I think SWIFT is taking a great approach at addressing those needs.

Obviously, we can look at data to measure student achievement; but I don’t think achievement can all be assessed merely by test data. However, it’s obviously an important criteria. If I can see the kids coming into a school and they’re smiling and they’re waving and hugging their teachers, then I know SWIFT is working.

I don’t want SWIFT to be in just one or two of our schools. I want to push for full district implementation of SWIFT, so I’m a big cheerleader and fan of SWIFT. I believe in the model and we’re going to incorporate this throughout our district as soon as possible.”

-Dr. Alvin Taylor

Photo of blog author.Dr. Alvin Taylor is the superintendent of the Meridian Public School District in Meridian, Mississippi. Dr. Taylor received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi State University and his educational specialist degree from the University of North Alabama. He recently earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction when he defended his dissertation in December 2010 and graduated in May 2011.