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Outcomes focussed education for inclusion

Chris Forlin and Peter Forlin
This article identifies research and trends in outcomes and outcomes measurement for students during their compulsory years of schooling, focusing particularly on those with special educational needs. It examines the current status of outcomes at a national level and identifies major issues associated with outcomes focussed education with respect to inclusion. Finally, it proposes a model for considering how to develop an outcomes-focused approach at a school level, that caters for the needs of all students and especially those with diverse abilities.

Many school systems in Australia have been moving towards greater self-management in recent years. School-based decision making is promoted in the context of greater flexibility and autonomy. This allows schools the freedom to improve their teaching and learning and empowers them to respond more effectively to the strengths and needs of their students. As Newmann and Wehlage (1996) suggest, 'The task for schools, then, is not simply to offer space and opportunity for individual teachers to teach. It is to organize human, technical, and social resources into an effective collective enterprise' (pp. 29-30). Concomitantly, it is important to ensure that all students are able to access equal educational opportunities. Without proper accountability frameworks devolution of financial management to a school level may lead to greater inequality of service provision for students with special needs (Forlin & Forlin 1996).

In New Zealand, the Picot Report led to a Government Policy document entitled 'Tomorrow's Schools' (Snook 1998). This policy advocates the introduction of self managing schools. Although schools are self managing there is now a National Curriculum in New Zealand and a new assessment regime. According to Wylie (1997), most teachers and principals consider that the self managing policy has led to improved learning for students but that it has been less successful in achieving equality for children from disadvantaged groups. School based management in Australia varies on a state-by-state basis.

In Queensland, for example, the implementation of school-based management in government schools is posited to be a 'holistic transformation of the department which involves the development of a new cultural identity ... which involves focusing all our energies, resources, knowledge and skills towards improving student learning outcomes' (Sullivan 1998, p. 12). Sullivan proposes that this will involve several key areas of change at the systemic level. Such changes may then allow transformation in schools to occur which will in turn promote improved learning outcomes for all students. Although Queensland government schools will become more independent over time, they may have fewer powers than in other devolved educational systems. In 1993 in Victoria, they implemented the 'Schools of the Future' program and this appears to have involved a high percentage of their state's education budget being decentralised to schools.

In most Australian states, although school councils tend to be allocated responsibility for establishing the broad direction for schools, principals are usually given responsibility for day-to-day operations. In many instances states still retain the function of the allocation and payment of staff, the management of statewide transfer systems, and the development of overarching frameworks of systemic policy. Other issues such as students in poverty and aspects of disadvantage are also addressed system wide. Curriculum development mainly occurs centrally and continues to be managed by independent statutory authorities (such as the Queensland Studies Authority).

Some jurisdictions have a system of totally school-based moderated education. This means that schools have responsibility for assessment decisions, and for special consideration decisions that provide students with an equal opportunity to show what they know and what they can do. Others utilise a combination of school-based moderation and external examinations.


The use of the term 'outcomes' in education indicates a shift away from a process approach to education to one which is results oriented. The National Center on Educational Outcomes in the USA defines the term outcomes to mean 'the result of interactions between individuals and schooling experiences' (Ysseldyke & Thurlow 1994a, p. 2). In some countries, such as the USA, the notion of educational outcomes is embraced in the form of national education goals (U.S. Congress 1993). In Australia, the term 'learning outcomes' is usually employed to describe what students know and what they can do. In most states and territories, learning outcomes have a dual role: to inform curriculum planning; and as a framework for assessment. There are many uses of the term outcomes of which the three major ones are included here (Massanari 1994):
  1. Learning outcomes: These refer to expectations set for students, competencies, skills, and knowledge that students are expected to demonstrate as a result of learning. Learning outcomes can be further divided into 'exit' outcomes where demonstration of learning is at the completion of activity and 'enabling' outcomes which focus on specific skills required by individuals that are critical to the student's ability to achieve the broader exit outcomes.

  2. Actualised outcomes: These signify the actual use of skills through obtaining a job or independent living, although these are influenced by external factors.

  3. System outcomes: These outcomes relate to the extent that a system is generally achieving desired results. Although they do not provide direct evidence that student learning is occurring, they ensure the means for it to happen and are crucial in supporting and sustaining learning and ensuring that the end product is attainable for all students.
Outcomes are usually clarified by the use of performance indicators, statements, and/or pointers that interpret outcomes in more explicit terms. The use of such indicators allows for comparisons to be made. It also allows for greater flexibility in determining appropriate indicators at a school level that can be compared to outcomes determined at a state or national level.


Outcome-based education is a process that relies on first, determining the required results and second, identifying the skills and knowledge needed to achieve those results. Considerable controversy has surrounded interpretation of the term outcome-based education (OBE). Griffin and Smith (1997) argue that OBE promotes a fundamental shift in schooling. They suggest that, 'By definition, outcomes represent statements of intention by society for all students, with teachers charged with the responsibility of assisting students to attain the outcomes' (p.44). In general terms, the concept of OBE is used to identify resul ts, values, and products, but this should be defined clearly in any given context to avoid ambiguity or misinterpretation (Ysseldyke & Thurlow 1994a). Furthermore, outcome-based assessment implies that an assessment is ' ... based on, or designed to assess, specific pre-defined results (Ysseldyke & Thurlow 1994a, p. 4). Outcome-based education has been conceptualised in three different ways namely, traditional, transitional, and transformational (Willis & Kissane 1995). Traditional outcomes reflect curriculum based objectives that highlight how successfully students learn. Transitional outcomes tend to be more goal oriented and reflect specific knowledge and competencies. Transformational outcomes, however, focus on much broader issues that are related to a person's life role such as self-directed learner, complex thinker, or community contributor.


In all states and territories in Australia, schools are using, in some way, the levels developed in the national curriculum statements and profiles (Kennedy, Marland, Sturman & Forlin 1996). In Victoria, for example, Curriculum and Standards Frameworks (CSF) are employed which set out major areas of learning to be covered and describe learning outcomes to be achieved. The statements of intended learning outcomes are appropriate for most students to have achieved. In Western Australia, they have implemented a curriculum framework that allows students to be profiled according to their achievements using an outcomes-focused approach. They have additionally developed Foundation Outcome Statements that reflect the expected outcomes of students who are working at a level prior to Level 1. In this way students with specific disabilities are able to be profiled on the same continuum as their peers.

In order to provide the most appropriate education for all students, Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are developed for students with high support needs. This ensures that students with disabilities have access to, participate in, and gain positive outcomes from schooling through a range of curriculum options across primary, secondary, and special schools. The IEP is negotiated and developed by a team that usually includes the students (where possible), parents/caregivers, regular class teacher, support teacher and other significant personnel. A review of a student's IEP assists in implementing, assessing, and reporting a student's educational outcomes. For older students with special educational needs an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) is produced through a similar process, which aims to link school achievement with post-school options.

Standards can be equated to benchmarks against which student's achievements are measured (DEETYA 1998). Nationally agreed benchmarks provide a standard to measure system success in improving performance. Reporting using national benchmarks will allow for comparisons at both intra and interstate levels.


Students with special educational needs include those who, in order to access and participate in the curriculum, may require a significant adaptation to and/or modification of the school program. The target group of students includes those with disabilities, learning difficulties, sensory impairments, or those who demonstrate significant behavioural and adjustment difficulties. In order to achieve quality learning outcomes, these students may require support, programs, services and other resources that are complementary and additional to those which are provided to students in general. There has been a strong movement in recent years towards emphasising educational learning outcomes as a means of improving quality teaching and learning for all students, including those with special needs. Such outcomes need to be broader and more encompassing than those purely with an academic focus.


Here we develop a model for diversity that can be applied when considering an outcomes-focused approach to education that will address the needs of all students within an inclusive classroom. A number of issues associated with the development of an outcomes focused approach for students with special educational needs will be considered. While directing this discussion towards students with disabilities or learning difficulties, this will be viewed in the context of outcomes for all children. Diverse and inclusive classrooms now also include students from a broad range of backgrounds such as those who are culturally or linguistically diverse, those from non English speaking backgrounds and those in poverty, among others. In addition, regular classes contain students who may be gifted or talented across a range of multiple intelligences.

The following model for diversity provides a systematic approach for responding to key issues associated with identifying, measuring and reporting outcomes for students with special educational needs. Significant implementation issues that consider opportunity to learn (OTL), accountability, assessment, accommodations, adaptations and exemptions are also addressed. In proposing this model the following assumptions are made:

Step 1: Identifying learning outcomes

In considering learning outcomes for students with special needs, it is important to acknowledge the diversity in developmental trajectories within this group. There will be a need to accommodate differences both between and within students when specifying learning outcomes. Several issues can be identified regarding learning outcomes for students with special educational needs that should be addressed and resolved while developing an outcomes-focused framework. They are: Learning outcomes for students with special educational needs should be broadly defined to include both academic and non-academic perspectives. Outcomes can be wide ranging depending upon many contextual factors such as gender, socio-economic background, and cultural heritage. Outcomes can include cognitive, affective, social, vocational, confidence, motivation, effort, responsibility, initiative, caring, perseverance, life skills, attitudes, trust and citizenship. Particular learning outcomes for students need to reflect short, medium, and long term goals. They should include traditional and transitional goals, which can be developed to reflect local requirements at a class or school level. In addition, transformative outcomes should also be delineated relating to the broader community context.

To ensure inclusivity, it may be best to define effectiveness indicators and learning outcomes for students with special educational needs within the context of outcomes for all students. According to Olsen (1994), this could work provided that the special needs of students for accommodations, access, adaptation, and compensation can be met.

Of major concern is whether it is possible to write non-specific generic outcomes that would be suitable for either all students or for all students with special educational needs. Will it be possible for all par ties to agree on such outcomes for school aged children regardless of specific disability or learning difficulty? In which case, how specific should outcomes be? Are the outcomes the same for people with different disabilities such as those who have an intellectual, or physical, disability or those who have a vision or hearing impairment? If outcomes are produced for different categories of disability should these also take into account the degree of the disability? At least one USA state (Michigan) has developed different outcome categories (for example, in basic academics, language and communication) for students with different disabilities such as learning disabilities, emotional disabilities and visual disabilities (Thurlow & Ysseldyke 1994).

A further concern is whether the current Key Learning Areas (KLAs) generally employed in each jurisdiction, are the most appropriate and suitable for identifying learning outcomes for students with special educational needs. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) in the USA, for example, has developed a conceptual model of educational outcomes which includes eight major domains that are appropriate for all students (Ysseldyke & Thurlow 1994b). Their model includes possible indicators for each outcome for various grade levels. A key feature of the NCEO Model is that it incorporates five non-academic domains, which include appropriate outcomes and indicators within each of them. This model evolved through a collaborative process and provides a comprehensive set of outcomes of schooling suitable for all children with or without disabilities.

The following key decisions now need to be made as they are critical for identifying the outcomes to be used if moving towards an inclusive educational approach:

Step 2: Measuring outcomes

Having identified the approach to be taken to develop learning outcomes suitable for all children, the following questions need to be asked regarding how these outcomes will be measured: There appears a need to develop appropriate and alternative ways to measure the learning outcomes of students who exhibit a very broad range of specific needs. Caution should be exercised when linking measurement and assessment of outcomes to a particular process though, as this may change over time. In the 1990s, for example, performance-based assessment was presented as a mechanism for reform in the USA. The purpose for measuring learning outcomes has altered from one where program improvement was being measured to using evaluation as a means of accountability. It has been pointed out by Olsen (1994), however, that information on outcomes alone will provide little guidance as to what actions are needed to improve them.

The system of school-based assessment in Australia can provide schools with considerable flexibility to develop work programs that meet the needs of their particular student clientele. By localising such decisions, different school groups are able to address their different patterns of subject choice and achievement, different aspirations, and different post-school-options of their students. It is important to provide schools and the community with more information relevant to what they are trying to achieve. It is also important to determine exactly how outcomes are to be assessed for all students. Examples of assessment that would cater for diverse student groups could include norm-referenced; criterion-based; IEP aggregate; secondary analysis; accreditation; or performance-based assessments. For teachers in New South Wales, for example, the use of outcomes has clarified the nature of assessment for them and has provided a focus on what students need to achieve thus making the programs less content driven. The major problem associated with the use of profiles by NSW teachers has been the increased workload that is demanded of them (Brady 1997).

There would seem to be a need to standardise definitions across federal and state government systems in Australia regarding outcomes. Such questions as: how will outcomes be measured particularly for students with differing impairments? and how will outcomes be measured in a school-based environment? need to be addressed. If outcomes are to make sense it is important to clarify exactly what inputs are available, as these will vary between schools. Schools will need to be responsive to the specific needs of their own students. How will achievement in a holistic sense, then, be reported when students are participating in a wide range of options? In what ways can students best show what they know and what they can do? Various alternative approaches to measuring outcomes can be employed that are suitable for all children. These can include performance assessments such as portfolios (Griffin & Smith 1997), interviews, observation, or exhibition (Shriner et al. 1994), together with the more traditional approaches.

A critical issue that needs to be addressed at both a school and systemic level is that of the use of accommodations, adaptations or exemptions for some students when measuring outcomes. The purpose of accommodations is to change the environment to facilitate the successful participation of all students. Accommodations can include modifications to the learning environment, the curricula, or instruction. To ensure that core skills requirements and the demands of external written tests do not deny access to a significant number of people with special educational needs, various accommodations may need to be readily available.

In the USA, many students with disabilities are excluded from large-scale assessment programs at national, state and local levels. This means that they are invariably not considered and that estimates of performance are not comparable among states due to differential participation rates. In some cases, however, accommodations are made such as the presentation of the assessment, the response of the student, the setting of the assessment, and the timing or scheduling of the assessment (Thurlow 1994). Specific adaptations may also include grouping questions under headings; oral reading of a test; allowing students to use notes; having extra spaces for answers; including practice questions; and simplifying the wording of questions (Jayanthi et al. 1996). The most helpful adaptation perceived by general educators in the USA has been reading the directions to the student.

In Australia, there is a strong tradition of making accommodations for students. For example, in Victoria and Western Australia, special consideration for exit certificates can involve variation of the substantive requirements of a subject. In Victoria, it is also possible to obtain an estimated result where substantive requirements have not been met. In Queensland, specific guidelines have been written that relate to examinations. Issues of special consideration are considered on an individual needs basis and are not determined by categorising students with a specific disability.

A key challenge is how to provide schools with the best possible support in making professional judgments regarding the provision of what constitutes an appropriate accommodation, as part of school-based assessment. According to Shriner et al. (1994), assessments, which have an impact on the student's future, should involve accommodations when necessary. There is also a need to address the issue of equity when students with disabilities or learning difficulties are allowed to use supplementary devices. It has been demonstrated by Whiting (1996), however, that in Australia, the use of a writer in an examination for example, does not advantage students.

Evaluation of student outcomes may be best effected when informed by a conceptual model of the program being evaluated. Such a multi-level model could incorporate a variety of variables that assess learning outcomes (academic, social, and vocational), school programs, instructional practices, services offered, availability of resources, school contexts, parent/community involvement, and leadership among others. This would link inputs, processes, and outcomes across all domains and also contextualise outcomes and provide a means of identifying the interrelationships between them.

The following decisions need to be made:

Step 3: Reporting outcomes

Learning outcomes need to be realistic and meaningful. Significant questions, though, are to whom outcomes should be reported; what format ought this take; and what is the additional workload on teachers? The purposes of reporting outcomes are to inform at the individual, school, and system levels. Reporting can be both for system accountability and for improving programs.

Reporting is typically of two types, namely, a) reporting at a system level (for example, to an Education Department) for accountability purposes; and b) reporting to parents about student achievement. Reporting of student outcomes needs to consider the system, the school, and the student. Outcomes, which are reported at a classroom level tend to assess what Willis and Kissane (1995) refer to as the 'enacted curriculum' or what has been actually taught. Assessments, which are developed at a school or system level, though, tend to report the 'intended curriculum'. In an outcomes-based approach, Willis and Kissane (1995) argue that neither of these should be seen as providing accountability but that reporting should be based on determining whether outcomes have been achieved and identifying where problems may have occurred. Reporting at a school level is most commonly done through the use of written report cards, which may be supplemented by parent conferences or alternative informal meetings. School level reporting can also be used to inform students about their own learning. When an IEP is used, the learning outcomes for each child should be clearly identifiable. Reporting on the achievement of IEP goals, that are linked to identified outcomes, ensures that reporting is outcomes-focused. There is a need for awareness of teachers' workloads if they are required to report by using both outcomes and an IEP for students with special educational needs.

If reporting of outcomes is not to be linked to accountability, as posited by Willis and Kissane (1995), then the issue needs to be addressed of how schools will be held accountable for ensuring that students with diverse needs are able to access suitable programs so that they may achieve appropriate outcomes. In addition, consideration should be given to whether accountability refers to all students and what community expectations are for students with special educational needs. A further major issue that has arisen regarding gathering accountability data is that of peoples' attitudes and opinions. Attitude has been found to influence a range of issues such as commitment to accountability and agreeing on outcomes and standards. Accountability problems may be overcome by staff development or by seeking consensus. Is it, therefore, productive to advocate statewide accountability procedures for students with disabilities? The National Centre on Educational Outcomes in the USA promotes the notion that accountability for all students is essential. They state:

The entire outcomes, standards, performance, and accountability enterprise is intended to motivate all students to achieve higher levels ... All students have the right, and must receive the opportunity, to learn to meet high, rigorous content standards. 'All' can mean 'All'... As educators we can set the example by putting forth our best efforts to help as many students as possible learn more and lead more productive lives. Anything less implies that our personal best is not important enough to move us to higher standards. (Shriner 1994a, pp. 41-42)
In the USA, federal laws such as IDEA together with Goals 2000, have mandated that schools provide the necessary compliance mechanisms to ensure continued access for all students to appropriate services. It is proposed by Danielson and Malouf (1994), however, that more decentralised, flexible, and locally driven reforms may be needed to improve educational outcomes for students with special educational needs. In this scenario, educational accountability could be achieved through a co-operative school-based approach that involves the collection of relevant and useful information. Data about how students are accessing schooling, the ways they are participating in it and their achievements could be used to inform schools, parents, the community and governments. As well as numerical reporting, Shriner et al. (1994) propose that accountability should also provide evidence of the degree to which decisions are based on educational or psychological judgment.

A number of questions need to be addressed regarding reporting outcomes: To whom should outcomes be reported? What format should reporting take: formal v informal, using existing reporting frameworks, or developing new procedures? Will demonstrated outcomes be linked to post school options for further study? A further crucial question exists regarding the linking of learning outcomes to existing programs and the issue of individual learning outcomes forming a component of certifications. Should learning outcomes at a school level, therefore, be linked to employment? While some states, for example Queensland, currently have no formal statement on outcomes for students who are leaving at Year 12, (although the Year 10 certificate does allow for this), other states, such as Western Australia, now insist that Years 11 and 12 focus on learning outcomes for all students. The difficulty arises when students who have completed their final year of schooling are unable to receive formal certification as they are undertaking learning programs that cannot be reported easily in terms of state and national standards. While most senior certificates usually report a broad range of achievements they do not usually have the capacity to include outcomes achieved within individual programs.

The decisions to be made are:

This proposed model for diversity has so far considered three key areas associated with an outcomes-focused approach to working in an inclusive environment. When considering this approach to education, specific questions have been posited that need to be addressed at both systemic and school levels related to identifying, measuring and reporting outcomes. In addition, there are two other important issues that we suggest should be seen as peripheral to the core of this model although very much part of the total picture. These relate to providing students with the opportunity to learn and issues of equity.

Opportunity to learn

Outcomes for students with special educational needs should also be about participation and involvement in learning but how will schools ensure that all students are given appropriate opportunities to learn? In the USA, the National Education Standards and Improvement Council monitors and certifies voluntarily produced Opportunity to Learn Standards that describe the conditions of teaching and learning necessary for all students to achieve. The term Opportunity To Learn (OTL) has emerged in the vernacular of policy makers in recent years. It can be defined generally as 'enriched educational experiences that meet the diverse needs of individual learners' (Geenen 1995, p. 4). Indicators of OTL can include the allocation of funds or resources, student time in class, content coverage, quality of instructional practices and student academic engagement time. Such indicators are indicative of inputs, which are likely to directly effect desired outcomes.

There are many school factors, that could be considered to either support OTL or act as barriers, which will prevent students from having the most appropriate opportunities for learning. There is a need to consider a range of OTL standards, which can loosely be classified into four perspectives. The first is that of school delivery which includes standards that aim to protect students from being held responsible for failing to reach the required learning outcomes. Second, OTL standards operate at a systemic level which can include the provision of teacher training and of appropriate textbooks. Third, OTL standards relate to the quality of inputs such as well trained teachers and the provision of high quality instructional materials. Fourth, is the allocation of time for learning in a task that can be performed with high success. These issues need to be considered in relation to all children but particularly for those children with special educational needs whose opportunities to learn may vary considerably as a direct or indirect result of their disability or learning difficulty.


There is a strong relationship between learning outcomes and curriculum and administrative issues, community and parental expectations, and issues of equity and social justice. Questions to be asked include how will resource expenditure be determined equitably at a school level? What is the availability of resources and facilities? What access do students with special needs have to resources and facilities? There is a need to ensure that all students are able to access appropriate programs. Students who have special educational needs should be treated equitably. This does not necessarily mean that resources should be distributed on an equal basis. The ethics of distributive justice (Rawls 1971) requires that decisions made regarding the allocation of resources are fair but that resources should be distributed depending on need.

In order to achieve appropriate outcomes, some students may require special facilities, access, and resources. Of concern is that some schools may be potentially unwilling to provide the necessary additional support and that minority groups of children may be discriminated against when funding is limited for programs. Specialised programs for students with special educational needs may not be perceived by schools to be cost effective and may, therefore, receive reduced resourcing. If cost is the primary criterion for developing programs in schools, funding may be directed towards the majority of students.

If insufficient resourcing is available in regular schools this will have a large impact on the movement towards inclusive education. There is a probability that regular schools may not be resourced adequately to meet the needs of all students out of their annual budget, particularly small rural schools where funding may be relatively limited compared to larger schools. Without appropriate legislation this poses the question of how equality of resource funding and program access to achieve relevant outcomes can be assured. Will a set proportion of school-based funding be allocated specifically for students with special educational needs and, if so, how will this be determined fairly?


This article has considered research and current ideas relating to outcomes and outcome measurement for all students, particularly those with specific educational needs. A model for diversity has been proposed that provides a process for previewing a number of issues associated with an outcomes-focused approach to education, employed in increasingly devolving educational systems. The model has identified key aspects that need to be considered regarding identifying, measuring and reporting outcomes. The model further promoted significant issues such as opportunities to learn, and equity issues. The development of this model is an attempt to assist systems and schools to consider all aspects of an outcomes-focused approach to education so than informed decisions can be made regarding enacting an inclusive curriculum. It is hoped that research such as this will continue to provide momentum to the inclusive education movement and further enhance the education of all students including those with identified special needs


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Author details: Dr. Chris Forlin is Associate Professor in Special Education at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. Email: forlin@ecu.edu.au

At the time of writing this article, Dr. Peter Forlin was Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Qld. He is now Senior Science Master, Mater Dei College, Perth Western Australia.

Please cite as: Forlin, C. and Forlin, P. (2002). Outcomes focussed education for inclusion. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(1), 62-81. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/forlin.html

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