IEP Vocational Assessment

“She likes to braid hair.” Several years ago, I was an Educational Surrogate for a teen in a neighboring county. That sentence was her entire IEP transition plan. Seriously, that was it. And, she had been transition age for 2 years.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 only 18% of disabled people had meaningful employment in this country. That’s abysmal! In my early days as a working advocate, most of my clients were teens in the transition phase. I can’t even tell you how many IEPs I saw with terrible transition plans. Or, in some cases, non-existent (like my example above).

students being exposed to vocational opportunities for their IEP transition

I find that when it comes to schools and transition planning, it’s all or nothing. Either a school district does a fantastic job and hits it out of the park. Or, they fail miserably and put “[Student] will research 3 post-secondary schools/opportunities.” Nothing in between. They either get it and completely embrace it, or they don’t.

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Thankfully, this is one area of IEPs where I have seen improvement in the 12+ years that I’ve been an advocate. Many service providers are offering more and different opportunities for students, and that is trickling down into the IEP process in the schools.

Person Centered Planning

Another positive change I have seen over the past decade is the concepts of self-determination and person-centered planning becoming more popular and consistent. For too long, disabled people have not been able to make choices about their existence that many of ableds take for granted.

Self Determination Boosters Success

Solid vocation and transition planning is essential. I can’t say this enough. I worked as a vocational instructor and too often I saw students unsuccessful in vocational programs that they had not chosen. Their choices were directed at them, not self-determination.

For example, it’s a common ‘thing’ to direct students who struggle with social skills to work with animals, ergo, in the veterinary field. Well, guess what? None of the animals goes to the vet by themself. They all come with an owner attached to the leash. As a result, these students were unsuccessful over and over, because a veterinary practice actually requires a high level of people skills. It’s essentially a customer service position! As a result, the students wasted time taking a program that was going to be of no value to them in the future because they could not keep a job. And, the student’s confidence and psyche take a hit because everyone told them that this is what they “should” do.

Proper exposure to all aspects of a career and a solid vocational assessment would have prevented these mistakes.

Many IEP students have not had the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers in terms of exposure to career preparation options. In the past, the career planning process for youth with disabilities often did not reflect the values of choice and self-determination. Many youths with disabilities were relegated to passive roles in their own career planning process. As a result, many disabled adults have not had the opportunity to pursue career options that they found motivating and satisfying.

Still, too many IEP students leave high school uncertain of their interests and abilities and unprepared to choose or pursue a career. Effective career planning and assessment for transition-age youth allows them to consider multiple options, act with self-advocacy, bridge academic and career plans, and equip themselves with critical information.

How to Request a Vocational Assessment

If your child needs a vocational assessment, the process is similar to any other IEP evaluation request. Put your evaluation request in writing, or wait for your child’s re-evaluation period and request it then. As an Advocate, I recommend getting two. The first one when the child enters transition at age 14/16, and the second one when they are getting ready to exit high school. In many states, that can be age 14-21, and a child’s skills and abilities can change tremendously in 7 years’ time.

I have a whole separate post on how to request IEP evaluations.

You want to ask your team who will be conducting the evaluation, and what their qualifications are. This may require that a separate agency is brought in to do this, and be a part of the IEP team. IDEA mentions this in transition.

IDEA and Vocational Assessments

From IDEA:

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(a) Transition services means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that—

(1) Is designed to be within a results-oriented process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to 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;

(2) Is based on the individual child’s needs, taking into account the child’s strengths, preferences, and interests; and includes—(i) Instruction;(ii) Related services;(iii) Community experiences;(iv) The development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives; and(v) If appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation.

Levels of Vocational Assessments

Many state and professional agencies have divided their vocational assessment process into 3 levels. In the world of special education acronyms, to my knowledge no one calls it a VA. But, I have often heard it referred to as a “voc assessment” or just “voc.” (rhymes with woke) Just FYI in case you hear it.

Level 1 Vocational Assessment: The initial process designed to arrive at a decision for vocational planning. This approach may consist of interviews, functional assessment, limited standardized testing, collecting and analyzing background information. It is used to assess one or two specific skills related to a specific vocational option. A Level 1 screening may include: a re-evaluation of existing data, an informal interview with the student to determine his or her interest in vocational education and functional skill sets, an informal conference with the teacher to gather information about a student’s interests, abilities, and adaptive behaviors (functional skills), an informal conference with parents to determine the post-secondary expectations for their son or daughter and their perceptions of the student’s skill set, and observations of student behavior and academic performance.

Level 2 Vocational Assessment: A process to further investigate vocationally relevant information. It may include additional interviewing, additional vocational counseling, additional standardized testing, transferable skills analysis, and/or job matching. Adaptive transferable skills are usually not an issue. Vocational options are not yet known. A Level 2 assessment may include: aptitude, achievement, and interest inventories, work readiness assessment of job-seeking and job-keeping skills, work-related behavior inventories, learning style inventories, and a functional living skills assessment that indicates a student’s preparedness to live and work independently.

Level 3 Vocational Assessment: Level 3 is a comprehensive vocational process when more in-depth information is needed beyond Levels 1 and 2 that systematically uses actual work placements to assist an individual’s vocational development and career decision making. The process can use work samples, standardized tests, situational assessments, behavioral observation, community-based assessment, transferable skill analysis, job matching, and background analysis. A Level 3 assessment may include formal assessment instruments that provide detailed instructions for administration and scoring, Situational assessment to observe and evaluate a student’s work-related behaviors in a controlled or semi-controlled work environment, Work samples/simulated job stations to simulate specific jobs.

What is important to note is that these 3 levels are typically considered to build on each other and are not mutually exclusive. It’s also worth noting that while many agencies and schools have defined levels and processes for determining post-secondary needs, none of these is “law” or statute. Some IEP teams get into a rut with “this is how we do post-secondary transition with IEP students” and that procedure may not be what your child needs. Your child may need components of all 3 levels. These are only provided as a guideline.

Some students may not need any level of formal assessment service beyond collecting relevant information portfolio style. Others may need one, two, or all three services to further their self-awareness and enhance the career development process. Transition assessment data provide secondary educators with valid information to update IEPs and compile an SOP for each student as the student exits school.

Vocational assessment is the process of gathering information about a student’s interests, abilities, and aptitudes as they relate to his or her vocational potential.

How does vocational assessment support transition planning?

Vocational assessment supports the process of transition planning by:

  • Determining the student’s strengths and challenges
  • Determining the student’s interests and preferences
  • Preparing the student for postsecondary education, vocational training, and adult life
  • Teaching the student how academics relate to career choices

Information gathered through a solid vocational assessment is essential if you want to have a solid transition plan for your IEP.

What areas are included in a vocational assessment?

A “Voc” Assessment may include:

  • Cognitive skills
  • Sensory and motor skills
  • Perceptual skills
  • Learning preferences
  • Vocational skills and development
  • Career awareness and development
  • Knowledge of jobs, job requirements and rewards, aptitude strengths, and employment challenges

Do all students with disabilities require assessment in each of these areas? Not necessarily. As with any IEP evaluation, it all goes back to what is appropriate for the child and making sure that evaluations occur in all areas of disability.

Information gathered from these vocational assessments should be summarized in the present level of educational performance and become the framework for developing a secondary student’s IEP. The goals and objectives of the IEP should reflect those areas in which the student needs to develop the necessary knowledge or skills to achieve his or her postsecondary goals.

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