What can you do now to set your students with disabilities up for postschool success?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Demystifying Transition Assessment

About the authors

Dr. Colleen Thoma

Colleen A. Thoma, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests include preparation of teachers to support self-determined transition planning, student-directed individualized education program development, universal design for transition, postsecondary education transition programs for students with intellectual disability, and the impact of student self-determination on transition and academic outcomes.

Dr. Thoma is a recipient of the 2012 Mary E. Switzer Distinguished Research fellowship to conduct a qualitative research study on the education of students with intellectual disability in postsecondary settings. She is a member of the board of directors for the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and a past president of the Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT).

Ronald Tamura, Ph.D, is an associate professor of special education and reading at Southern Connecticut State University. He teaches graduate courses in the areas of developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, collaboration and consultation, and secondary transition.

Dr, Tamura's research interests include personnel preparation, self-determination, transition, and positive behavior supports. He has served as a member of the board of directors for the CEC, is a former secondary-level special educator, and has worked as an education consultant for the Bureau of Special Education in the Connecticut State Department of Education.


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First published: March, 2013

Q: What is transition assessment?

A: Transition assessment is an ongoing and coordinated process that begins in the middle school years and continues until students with disabilities graduate or exit the school system.

It is a process for determining student's strengths, preferences, and interests, which are then used to identify appropriate instruction, supports, and services that assist in the transition from school to postschool life. It is a process that illuminates a path for the student's future.

Q: Why is assessment so critical to effective transition planning?

A: There is a saying that "any road will get you there if you don't know where you are going." I think that makes the point about why transition assessment is so important; it is a method for determining a student's goals for adult life and if done well, provides information about the supports, instruction, and/or modifications that a student needs in order to accomplish those goals.

Q: What are the key areas that should be examined to help a student answer the question What do you want to do after high school?

A: There are a number of ways that postschool outcomes have been grouped but basically, good transition planning should focus on a number of areas. First, self-determination has been linked to more successful outcomes, so it's important that transition assessment includes a focus on the student's skills in that area and ultimately, instruction and opportunities to improve those skills.

Most transition assessments focus on determining a student's goals for employment, post-secondary education, community living, and personal care skills. But we shouldn't forget about goals for social relationships, transportation, health care, and recreation & leisure.

Q: In your experience, what element of transition has been most neglected?

A: I still think that with all educational assessment, we over-rely on formal assessments and paper and pencil tests. It's harder and more time-consuming to do performance-based assessments such as ecological inventories or community resource mapping, but they really result in information that is more readily translated into transition goals. We also found as we were researching this book, that there is a lack of information on transition assessments that target the health care needs of a young adult with disabilities. Given the impact of your health on your ability to meet your postschool goals, that's a huge gap in our field.

Q: What affect have mandates such as No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards had on transition assessment and planning?

A: I don't know all the data, but having higher expectations for academic performance has resulted in improved test scores for many students with disabilities. But it hasn't come without challenges. Increased expectations for academic achievement can result in less time and energy devoted to transition assessment and planning; there is only so much time in a day. It takes some creativity to find ways to do both, and a reliance on a collaborative transition team to accomplish both. It's worth it since students have greater opportunities when they have better academic preparation.

Q: How important is it for transition specialists to link academic instruction to real-world skills and events?

A: We know that there is a huge focus on increasing our expectations for academic performance for all students, including students with disabilities. That's a reality for schools today. But we also know that it's not enough to prepare students with disabilities for adult life by focusing only on academics; they also need our help with identifying postschool goals and putting a plan in place to help them get there.

We have found that helping teachers link academic instruction with real-world skills and events not only provides a way to accomplish both goals, but it also helps students improve their academic performance. They are more motivated to learn when they see that the information can be useful to them in the real world, and we all know that when students are more motivated to learn, are more engaged in the instruction, they are usually more successful. How many of us remember asking When am I going to ever have to use this? when we were in high school?

Q: What is meant by a "backward design process" for instruction?

A: The backward design process is a three-step process that teachers can use for instructional planning. Basically, it starts with the outcome in mind, then identifies assessment strategies that would yield the information you need, and that information is used to identify the necessary instruction/learning goals.

So, applied to transition planning, you start with a student's goal to be a lawyer. What information would you need to know about the student's ability to do that job? Well, you would need to know his communication skills (can he stand in front of a judge and jury and argue a case?), his ability to get into college, his ability to pay for college and law school, his logic and reasoning skills, and his reading skills.

So you identify assessments that would give you a picture of his ability to do those things. And, once you collect that information, you begin to identify the areas where improvement is needed (or where he doesn't meet those requirements for the job) and you develop your plan based on those discrepancies. Does he need additional reading instruction? Are there modifications that can help? What accommodations does he need to be successful at college?

Q: How important is self-determination to positive transition outcomes?

A: It's critically important. As I stated earlier, we have ample evidence that students with higher self-determination skills have better outcomes in terms of employment, postsecondary education, community living, and an overall quality of life. The work of Wehmeyer and his colleagues over the years has affirmed that over and over again. And, we are beginning to learn more about how to help students improve those skills through the use of instructional models and curricula designed for that such as the self-determined model of instruction.

We have the tools, and we have the rationale for using them. And it goes without saying that the more students assume responsiblity, the less likely that transition assessment and planning will fall through the cracks.

Demystifying Transition Assessment

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