Special Education

Effective Transition Assessment for Students With Disabilities

A mandatory assessment process is a crucial step in ensuring students’ success after high school.

February 13, 2024
SeventyFour / iStock

As soon as a child is found to be eligible for receiving special education services, their school and family are expected to work collaboratively to create an individualized education program (IEP) that indicates the school services that support the student’s individualized needs. All IEP services are provided by public schools free of charge. After high school graduation, or when students turn 22 years old (whichever comes first), IEP services are immediately terminated.

Therefore, it’s essential to have a well-structured transition plan in place while students are in school, so that they can be equipped with the skills to lead a successful adult life after high school. Transition assessment is a cornerstone of transition planning.

Transition Assessment is Mandatory

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), all states are mandated to begin transition planning for pre-K to 12 students with disabilities by the time they’re 16 years old. Its purpose is to ensure that students learn the needed skills before graduating from high school. Transition assessment is the key to successful transition planning. Its results allow the IEP teams to provide services and support that match students’ interests, preferences, strengths, and needs.

Let’s demystify four myths about transition assessment.

Myth 1: The annual IEP evaluation and the three-year reevaluation can replace transition assessment.

Reality: Results of an annual IEP evaluation and three-year reevaluation can inform IEP teams of the cognitive, academic, and/or functional skills of youth with disabilities. However, they are far from sufficient. IDEA 2004 mandated that transition services should “facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation.” To determine the right services, transition assessment focusing on these areas is a must. 

Myth 2: The main purpose of transition assessment is to identify future employment goals for students with disabilities.

Reality: Transition assessment is for all students with disabilities, not just those with severe disabilities. It includes post-school outcome areas such as postsecondary education, employment, independent living, community participation (day programs), and social relationships.

Myth 3: Transition assessment occurs only once, at the beginning of the transition planning, or is a once-a-year event to guide the development of the IEP.

Reality: Transition assessment is an ongoing process that takes place throughout and across the secondary school years of students with disabilities. Creating ongoing assessments can ensure that data are current and relevant, so that schools can identify the skills that youth still need to learn and develop. 

Myth 4: Only formal assessments must be used for transition assessment.

Reality: All types of assessments have pros and cons. Formal assessments are standardized and technically sound but rigid in nature and often can be conducted no more than once a year. Informal assessments are flexible and can be used numerous times throughout the year to monitor students’ progress, but their reliability and validity are unknown. Therefore, multiple types of assessment should be used.

Transition Assessment supports self-determination

The ultimate goal of transition assessment is to help families and their youth with disabilities gain a better understanding of students’ strengths and needs, so that they can have an independent and successful future. 

IDEA requires youth to attend their own IEP meetings, so that they can be actively involved in their transition planning and make decisions for their own future. In order to do so, youth with disabilities need to be self-determined—they should have the ability to make choices, problem-solve, set goals, and evaluate what options are best for them. Youth with disabilities who are self-determined are more likely to experience success after high school. Because of this, schools should conduct self-determination assessment to identify how to help students develop their self-determination skills through quality instruction.

Types of Transition Assessment

Both formal and informal assessments that address training, education, employment, and independent living skills (where appropriate) should be conducted. Below are some sample transition assessments. These are commonly used by school professionals.


Self-Determination Skills:


Independent Living Skills:

Who Can Be Involved?

Individuals who work closely with youth with disabilities can be involved in the transition assessment process. It’s important for school professionals to conduct a variety of formal and informal assessments to determine the educational, socio-emotional, and functional skills of youth with disabilities. Their families can also help in the assessment process and monitor their progress.

For instance, families can conduct an interest inventory, provided by the school, to gauge their youth’s strengths, interests, and needs. Families can also monitor their youth’s progress by conducting direct and indirect observations at home and share the observational data with the IEP teams. Families can keep track of how often their youth utilizes the measurement skills they have learned from school when preparing for a snack or a meal, for example.

It’s critical that families clearly understand each component of transition assessment. Additionally, schools should always provide non-English-speaking families with information and documents that are in their native language. Using assessments that incorporate youth’s dominant language can also provide IEP teams with a better understanding of the youth’s language needs.

interpreting Transition Assessment Data

After all needed assessments are complete, it’s time for the IEP team to analyze and interpret the collected data and ensure that youth with disabilities (and their families) understand the assessment results. The results should inform the team of the strengths, preferences, interests, and needs of youth with disabilities. The team uses those results to work collaboratively, develop postsecondary goals, and determine the appropriate next steps. Should the students continue advancing their education? If so, which areas do the students still need to strengthen? Should the students follow the vocational path? If so, what type of vocational training should the students focus on? 

Often, the IEP team will collaborate with community and/or state agencies, such as the Department of Developmental Services, that can help youth reach their postsecondary goals. These organizations may offer various kinds of support, such as internship opportunities, technological support, and personal care services. Many of them may continue supporting youth after high school.

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  • Special Education
  • Administration & Leadership
  • Family Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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