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.

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.


Riding Through Summer One Success at a Time

Taking a step back to watch her from the sidelines, I was reminded that she will waiver, she will fall, and sometimes she may crash and bleed a little, but that’s ok. That’s the story of life—finding a balance between the highs and lows.


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).

Creating Expert Learners in Every Classroom

What do you consider to be an educator’s ultimate goal? Is it to fill their students with the knowledge that they need to be successful? To provide their students with the habits of mind that they need to be confident learners? Or perhaps a blending of the two?

From a UDL perspective, the goal to develop expert learners is a driving force throughout a successful learning process.  UDL defines expert learners as learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, and purposeful and motivated.   Simply and powerfully put, David Rose explains that UDL is all about guiding each student to be the absolute best learner that he can be.

Consider this scenario:

At the end of science class, Mr. Therian returns the science test back to his students.  Students wait for their name to be called, grab their graded test, and race out of the room to get to their next class.  John grabs his test, and stuffs it in his notebook without even looking at it. When he gets to his locker, he quickly glances over his shoulder to make sure no one is there and then he takes a deep breath as he slowly opens his notebook to peek at the grade at the top of his test.  His stomach drops as he sees the grade of 67/D.  How could that be? I went to get extra help, and I reread my notes so many times! How am I going to tell my mom I got a D? In the hallway to the right of John’s locker, he sees his buddy Kevin high-fiving his friends as they celebrate his grade of 93/A. John overhears Kevin saying, “I didn’t even study! I never study—and it’s a good thing I’m good at science because I don’t even think I would know how to study!”  Kevin tosses his science test in the bottom of his locker and rushes off to his next class.  John decides to go to Mr. Therian to ask a few questions about his performance on the test.  John learns what he could have done to improve his grade.  Mr. Therian shares another study strategy to add to John’s strategy of rereading class notes. John leaves Mr. Therian’s room feeling inspired with another option for studying for future tests.  He is also relieved that Mr. Therian is allowing students to retake the test if they submit test corrections by the next day.  John is motivated to continue his hard work—he refuses to let any grade define who he is as a learner.

So who would you consider to be the expert learner—John or Kevin?

Becoming an expert learner is all about the process

The UDL Guidelines provide educators with key strategies for guiding expert learners.  Here are some additional strategies that work:

Encouraging Students to be Resourceful and Knowledgeable

  • Incorporate Reciprocal Teaching where students predict, question, clarify, and summarize. They gain knowledge while becoming immersed in the learning process.
  • Include an Anticipation Guide to activate background knowledge and identify text-based evidence to deepen initial understandings.

Guide Students to be Strategic and Goal Directed

  • Frame the learning environment by communicating the standards and learning process.  You can post the standards, agenda for the day, and any anchor charts that present strategies to guide the learning process.
  • Apply graphic organizers to guide students’ abilities to organize their strategic thinking and broaden their knowledge base.

Inspire Purposeful and Motivated Learners

  • Make time for journaling and encourage students to reflect on their learning experiences, while setting goals for future learning.
  • Focus on effort and personal growth to inspire long-lasting learning habits of mind.  Weave in growth mindset philosophy throughout each day!

Teachers who develop expert learners help students value their own thinking.  Strategic instructional plans for the learning process are clearly and flexibly in place to guide students to organize their thinking.   These enriching learning environments create expert learners who understand learning as a process—not as a product.

I am interested in learning from others.  What is happening in your classroom? Can you share your strategies and routines that support your students becoming expert learners?  What is one new strategy you would like to try?

– Elizabeth Stein

Photo of blog author.Elizabeth Stein is a teaching veteran, with more than 20 years experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published by Scholastic (June 2013). She blogs at Two Teachers in the Room for MiddleWeb, LLC. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein

UDL and Differentiation: Finding Harmony

My work in the area of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) brings me into many conversations about differentiation. While some educators try to understand the difference, others see the two ideas as the same. And some people believe one is better than the other. When I look at the UDL framework and a concept map of differentiation, I see how they complement one another and together can lead to improved student outcomes.

The Big Picture

The UDL framework asserts that lessons and environments should be designed to be accessible to all students regardless of their learning needs. In fact, because all students learn differently, we shift our thinking away from categorizing our students toward planning for their inevitable, variable needs. We design our lessons and environments (e.g., classrooms) to include a variety of ways students can become connected to the information (the principle of Engagement), learn the information (the principle of Representation), and show what they learned about the information (the principles of Action and Expression).

Differentiation recognizes that not all students learn the same way and we need to actively plan for those differences. In a concept map, Carol Tomlinson refers to an educator mindset and how it intersects with principles of differentiation. Differentiation principles guide the design of scaffolding and supports, and include respectful tasks, quality curriculum, teaching up, flexible grouping, continual assessment, and building community. Educators choose scaffolds and supports based on their knowledge of student needs. They know where the students are and where they need to go in their learning (Readiness). What educators work to do is raise students’ levels of motivation by connecting to their interests (Interest), and they help students figure out ways of learning that work for them so they become more efficient learners (Learning Profile).

The Harmony

A surface comparison links differentiation’s student characteristics with UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints.

Differentiation: Readiness

  • Guideline(s): Representation
  • Guideline(s): Options for Comprehension
  • Checkpoint: Activate or Supply Background Knowledge

Differentiation: Interest

  • Guideline(s): Engagement
  • Guideline(s): Options for Recruiting Interest
  • Checkpoint: Optimize Relevance, Value, and Authenticity

DifferentiationLearning Profile

  • Guideline(s): Action & Expression and Engagement
  • Guideline(s): Options for Executive Functions and Options for Self-Regulation
  • Checkpoint: Support Planning & Strategy Development and Develop Self-Assessment and Reflection

This simple comparison initially shows some—but not all—of how differentiation and UDL complement each other.  For instance, other similarities include the mindset of differentiation, which aligns with the mindset recognized to support the implementation of UDL. Both mindsets describe educators more likely to expand their design and include options from the UDL framework including:

  • sustaining effort and persistence;
  • perception;
  • language, mathematical expressions, and symbols;
  • physical action; and
  • expression and communication.

Both UDL and differentiation recognize that some students’ needs are more significant than others’. Differentiation is built upon this recognition and UDL provides guidance in the types of options that would benefit specific students. Thus, educators seeking ways to differentiate can look to the UDL framework for ideas.

UDL and differentiation share the overarching beliefs that all students benefit from a flexible learning environment and that educators should design environments with expectations for student growth and achievement. Both recognize that students need meaningful learning experiences to maintain their motivation and a variety of choices so they can determine their preferred ways learning needs.

Although UDL and differentiation are not the same frameworks, they are not competing structures. I encourage educators to recognize the overlaps and how each supports the other as we work together for improved outcomes for all students.

Want to read more about this subject? Read CAST’s “UDL Intersections: Universal Design and Universal Design” or “Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation.”

– Loui Lord Nelson

Photo of blog author.Loui is the UDL Specialist for SWIFT as well as an international consultant specializing in the area of UDL. A former teacher, she was the UDL Coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana, and wrote Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning while working on her post-doc at CAST. You can follow her on Twitter at louilordnelson.

Dear Teacher

Dear Teachers,

Congratulations! My daughter Rachel is going to be in your general education class this year. I suspect that you haven’t had a student with Down syndrome in your general education class before. I suspect you are a little nervous, and you might need some information so I wanted to share. Regardless of your faith persuasion, I hope it brings you confidence to know that we have been praying for you since before Rachel was born!

As you prepare to welcome Rachel and many other students, I want to remind you that you are not alone.  While it is your responsibility to help educate Rachel, you are fortunate that you have an outstanding resource teacher and paraprofessionals to give support.  Still, she is a part of your class. Yes, she has Down syndrome but she is in your class to learn and that is not the resource teacher or paraprofessional’s sole responsibility. I hope you do not see Rachel as a burden but as a curious student who will work very hard to do her best and who will learn differently than some of your other students. Her best will not look like most of the other students’ and you won’t be there when we are watching the Olympics and she says “Zimbabwe is in Africa. I learned that in school.” You will probably never know everything she learns from you. We know she won’t learn exactly what the other students do, but she will learn. She will not regurgitate things on a test like some of your other students. She’ll need her homework and test presented in a certain way to find out what she knows. Then again, most of us have different ways of learning.

Don’t panic about her standardized test scores bringing down your numbers. Though I am not a fan of standardized tests, even after the passage of IDEA we had years of many educators not teaching curriculum to our students with special needs. So the pendulum swung a little too far the other way. That isn’t your fault, but it isn’t Rachel’s fault either. Please remember to give Rachel a little extra time to process things. The 10-second rule is a good one. Give her 10 seconds to think about the first question before you move on to the next one.  Please communicate with us. If there is something good or something of concern or something you just aren’t sure about, come to us and we can help. Come sooner instead of later.

Then, I want you to know that you are lucky to have me as a parent to work with you. There will be days you won’t believe that. There will be days you are certain that I am possessed, but I do what I need to do to see to it that my daughter gets what she needs. A long time ago I was told that Rachel couldn’t be in the general education kindergarten because she couldn’t “function” in a general education classroom. We demanded that she be fully included and now I just say, “The proof is in the product.” That is just one of my battle scars. I have a lot of scars that you don’t know about. Maybe that will help you to understand why I am a self-proclaimed high maintenance mom. I am not apologizing for that.  I will also be your biggest fan and supporter. I will bring you special treats, write letters of support for you, ask legislature to give you more money, nominate you for awards and so forth. First and foremost, I will always be advocating for my daughter to learn and helping you in any way I can.

Rachel is fiercely independent. Her independence is a gift and a curse. Her independence will help her in life but it also makes her not want to have help. No matter how much she loves the para’s, she really would prefer they go away and has told them so from time to time. Honestly, she doesn’t want a paraprofessional anywhere near her because she is a 13-year-old diva girl who wants to be like everyone else. She wants to have friends. She is boy crazy. She wants to be included. She knows that there are some things at school that are very hard for her. She wishes it wasn’t that way, but it is. She will tell you that her brain is full or tired and I am guessing that is true sometimes.  A lot of what she does is tied to that need to be one of the girls. She is a pleaser and usually will not intentionally try to make you irritable. She will also tell you what she thinks you want to hear in order to be a pleaser. Rachel is also funny, loving, loyal, and confident. She has great stage presence and will tell you so.

Our family has high expectations so we expect Rachel to do her best. We expect her to learn. We know that some things are hard for her but that is life. Life is hard for all of us sometimes, and we don’t have room for pity. We want her to grow up to be independent. She wants to be a teacher, get married, and live in a pink house. We want that for her too and we know that what we do now impacts that.

We are anticipating a great year in 7th grade. I want to thank you for investing your life in education. I believe that teaching is the highest of calls. We have been blessed with the best teachers I can imagine. If you could speak to most of them preschool through today, almost every one one of them would say, “I learned more from Rachel than she did from me.” They would say that may sound cliché but they are better teachers to all students and better human beings because they had my Rachel in their class.  In May, I suspect you will be able to say that, too.

Sincerely yours,

Rachel’s Mom

– Jawanda Mast

Photo of blog author with her child.I am TheSassySouthernGal, a misplaced Southern gal living in the Midwest. I grew up in rural Arkansas and I have a beautiful “SassyGal in training” named Rachel who happens to have Down syndrome. I love to share stories from my life and our lives. Come along on my journey and we’ll share some stories, some tears and a lot of fun! Soon you will see why I am TheSassySouthernGal!

Inclusion: We Got It!

They told me Rachel was crying because a friend who had moved away was at camp and she missed her. All was well. They didn’t need me and didn’t really need the room counselor because guess what? They had it. They took care of it.