Assessment and Teaching of Foundational Skills for Diverse Learners: The Students with Additional Needs Program (for schools)

Project Contact

Jayne Johnston
  • Location: Assessment Research Centre Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Project Details

This program of research commenced in 2007 at the Assessment Research Centre under the leadership of Professor Patrick Griffin, and since then has drawn on the collaborative work of many educators, researchers, and administrators who share a commitment to supporting every student's right to learn.

To support all students as learners, we must first provide their teachers and schools with access to high quality, research-based advice, resources, and materials.

That is the purpose of the Students with Additional Needs (SWANs) program – to design, validate, and disseminate an integrated program of assessment, planning, and teaching advice that is easy for teachers to access and use and that helps them realise the learning potential of their students with additional needs.


The original SWANs project was funded by the Australian Research Council, and conducted as a collaborative endeavour between the Assessment Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET), and the Centre for Advanced Assessment and Therapy Services. That research recognised the diversity of learners in Australian schools and classrooms, and set out to answer the following question:

What do schools and teachers need to know and be able to do to support every student's right to learn?

The work drew on the Salamanca Statement (PDF 203KB) and Framework for Action's (UNESCO, 1994) 'recognition of the need to work towards "schools for all" – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs' (p. iii).

Australian teachers work in classrooms in which students can typically be learning across at least four or five age-equivalent levels of skill and understanding (Howes, 2012), regardless of whether or not a student with a formally diagnosed disability is included in the class group.

To meet the requirements of the Disability Standards for Education (DSE) (2005), schools and teachers must ensure that all students can participate in education without experiencing discrimination. The expectation is that students with disabilities are provided with educational opportunities and choices on the same basis as students without disabilities.

To explain what is meant by offering opportunities and choices on the same basis for all students, the DSE (2005) states in Section 2.2.3 that:

"A person with a disability is able to participate in courses or programs provided by an educational institution, and use the facilities and services provided by it, on the same basis as a student without a disability if the person has opportunities and choices in the courses or programs and in the use of the facilities and services that are comparable with those offered to other students without disabilities."

Note 2 to this Section explains that:

"In some cases, students with disabilities will not be able to participate on the same basis as other students if all students are treated in the same way, or if all students with disabilities are treated in the same way."

This supports a flexible, differentiated, and personalised approach to provision of learning experiences and choices, an approach which has formed the basis of the SWANs research. In other words, all students have a right to participate in educational experiences without experiencing discrimination. But to ensure this, teachers must know how to adapt and adjust learning experiences, opportunities, and choices to meet the needs of individual learners. To do this, they must have ready access to high-quality, research-based materials to support them in their professional practice.

SWANs research 2007—2009

The purpose of the SWANs research (2007 – 2009) was to develop and validate an integrated program of assessment, reporting, planning, and teaching advice that teachers could draw on to support the learning of students with additional needs. These students are sometimes characterised as 'untestable' because of the difficulty of assessing their skills and abilities using conventional forms of testing. Some of these students may have a form or severity of disability that makes it difficult for them to take part in tests. Others may alter their behaviour to a significant extent in the stressful or unfamiliar context of testing.

Teachers can also find it professionally challenging to develop an appropriately adjusted or individualised learning program for these students in the absence of clear information about expected pathways of learning or specific curriculum advice.

The first questions for teachers, then, are:

  • What does this student already know? What can s/he do? What is the starting point for teaching and learning?
  • And what is the student ready to learn next?

The SWANs research aimed to design and validate observation-based measures that teachers could use to describe and monitor learning across foundational or enabling skills for their students. It adopted a strengths-based, skills-referenced, and developmental approach to describing learning in foundational domains such as communication, literacy, interpersonal processes, personal learning skills (i.e., attention, memory, and executive functioning) and emotional self-management. These were described as the sorts of skills students need to develop to enable or support their participation in education across multiple curriculum domains.

This phase of the SWANs research worked with experienced teachers of students with additional needs to design and then trial assessment items that drew on the sorts of behaviours teachers could observe in everyday classroom interactions with their students.

The process is described in a paper by Woods and Griffin (2013), and the broader background to the research is set out in a paper published by Griffin (2007).

  • Woods, K., & Griffin, P., (2013). Judgement-based performance measures of literacy for students with additional needs: Seeing students through the eyes of experienced special education teachers. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 20(3), 325-348.
  • Griffin, P. (2007). The Comfort of Competence and the Uncertainty of Assessment. Studies in Educational Evaluation. 33(1), 87-89.

The outcome of the first phase of the research was an online assessment and reporting program that teachers could use to answer these questions:

  • Based on the things I observe my student do, say, make, write, or draw, what judgments can I make about the things s/he knows and can do?
  • What are the student's current skills in communication, literacy, interpersonal development, personal learning, and emotional self-management?
  • What are the skills and knowledge that other similar students learned next?
  • How can I use this information to set specific and individually relevant learning goals for my student?

Access more information about SWANs

Abilities Based Learning and Education Support

In 2009, the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET) commissioned a version of the SWANs materials tailored to suit the needs of Victorian school and teachers. This included linking the assessment reports to the Victorian curriculum, and re-badging the generic SWANs tools as part of the Abilities Based Learning and Education Support (ABLES) materials.

Access more information about ABLES

SWANS General Capabilities: Building the numeracy, digital literacy, movement and problem solving capability of students with intellectual disabilities

The purpose of this project is to guide teachers' capacity to assess and monitor personalised learning programs in numeracy, digital literacy, movement and problem solving capability for students with intellectual disabilities. Profiling learning in this manner can help ensure that all students are given opportunities to reach their full potential.

This project strengthens a long-term research alliance and is designed to assist Australian schools to meet legislated requirements that all students, including those with intellectual disabilities, be given equitable opportunities to reach their full potential. The project extends previous research known as the SWANS project (Australian Research Council Linkage Project LP0775224) that profiled development in general capabilities of literacy, language, and personal and social capability. It builds on previous collaboration with experienced specialist teachers and the state government division responsible for the education of students with disabilities to develop a pool of researchers with expertise in this challenging area of education.


SWANS General Capabilities researchers

  • Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin, Chief Investigator
  • Dr Kerry Woods, Chief Investigator
  • Karen Underwood, Partner Investigator, Department of Education and Training, Victoria
  • Nafisa AwwalResearch Fellow

Research higher degree students

  • Lindsey Gale, PhD in Education
    The development and validation of a measure of movement competency supporting instruction of students with physical disabilities
  • Toshiko Kamei, Master of Education
    Development of a problem-solving measure for students with intellectual disabilities
  • Jane Strickland, PhD in Education
    Building the numeracy capability of students with intellectual disabilities
  • Emily White, PhD in Education
    Protocols for the teaching and assessment of the information and communication technology capability of students with intellectual disabilities



The original SWANs project was funded by the Australian Research Council with partners the Victorian Department of Education and Training, and the Centre for Advanced Assessment and Therapy Services.

The SWANs General Capabilities research was funded by the Australian Research Council, as well as its industry partner the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

Research Outcomes

Accessing resources

SWANs is an online and fully integrated program of assessment, reporting, planning and teaching advice that is suitable to monitor and support the learning of students aged from five to eighteen years and with a diversity of additional learning needs. It includes professional advice and support in the form of easy-to-read materials that can be downloaded from within the program.

It is a skills-based assessment that draws on teachers' observations of their students' everyday behaviours in the school and classroom context. No specialised knowledge or training is required to draw on the SWANs resources. The only requirement is that the person/s completing assessments for a student must have had sufficient time to observe the student and get to know that student well. Clearly, it is not wise to base our programs of teaching and learning on incomplete or inadequate knowledge about our students.

The SWANs reports describe each student's current 'readiness to learn' as they move along a pathway of increasing skill and understanding. Learning pathways are currently available in the domains of communication, literacy, interpersonal processes, personal learning skills, emotional self-management, digital literacy, numeracy, thinking skills and movement.

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