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Testing Outside the Box—Vocational Assessments for Nonverbal, Nonreading and/or Hard-to-Test Students

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

My colleague Tabitha Monahan and I have dedicated several recent blog entries to vocational assessment—a vital tool for helping students to learn about career planning and employment and to set career goals for themselves. Previous blogs have included an overview of vocational assessment as well as an in depth look at career interest inventories, career aptitude testing, assessing work motivation and values and real-life experiences, such as informational interviews and job shadows.

However, many of the most “popular” or common tools for vocation assessment are intended for use with students who have functional reading abilities (i.e., basic reading skills at or above 5th grade levels). While there are many accommodations a skilled evaluator might use to help a wide range of students effectively access these tests, there are also students who receive special education services and cannot access these word-based and rating-based assessment tools. So, what tools can be used effectively with these students? How do we assess interests and aptitudes for students who are nonverbal, have reduced reading skills, or may provide unreliable responses to language-based testing methodologies? Below are a few of the methods that we find particularly useful at NESCA.

  • Picture-based Interest Inventories

Instead of using text-based items and rating scales, picture-based career interest inventories help individuals to express their occupational interests by selecting preferred pictures of people at work or people performing work-related tasks. Pictures are presented in sets of two, three, or more, and the student points to or circles the picture that seems most interesting. Based on the number and types of pictures selected, the test identifies work themes that are most appealing to the student. Evaluators can also look for themes among pictures selected, such as a student who selects a high number of pictures that have multiple people, computers, vehicles, outdoor activities, etc. Three popular picture-based assessments are the Picture Interest Career Survey (PICS) published by JIST, the Reading-Free Vocational Interest Inventory-Third Edition (RFVII-3) by Katherine Synatschk and Ralph Becker, and the Career Interest Inventory – Pictorial Version by Shasta Twenty-first Century Career Connections.

  • Video-based Interest Assessment

Video-based career interest assessments are more difficult to find but can be incredibly useful nonverbal tools for vocational evaluation and career planning. A tool that we use at NESCA is Your Employment Selections (YES), which is a CD-ROM-based reading-free job preference and career exploration program that has 120 videos of different jobs which are viewed and compared strategically in pairs. Through initial video-based trial, students indicate preferences, such as a desire to work indoors or outdoors, work alone or with coworkers, interact with the public or coworkers, and do light or heavy lifting work. These preferences are used to determine which subset of job videos the student will view. Traditional testing involves the student watching two videos and pointing to, or clicking on, the one they like more. However, the evaluator can work with a student who has limited verbal abilities to determine some of the features or tasks the student likes most, or dislikes most, within the specific job videos shown. While this video program is no longer available for retail, there are plenty of great career videos that can be used to carry out similar informal assessment on web sites, such as CareerOneStop, Dr. Kit, MassHire Career Information System, and even YouTube.

  • Functional Assessments and Observations

For all students, regardless of communication or self-determination skills, functional assessments and real-world observations play a vital role in career assessment and planning. For students who struggle with reading- and writing-based assessments, it can be important to have access to more hands-on standardized assessments of employment strengths and abilities. One such assessment tool is the Skills Assessment Module (SAM) published by Piney Mountain Press, which includes an auditory directions screen to determine how well a student can follow verbal directions and 12 work-related activities that simulate actual work aptitudes required in training and jobs (e.g., mail sort, ruler reading, assembling small parts, etc.). However, evaluators who do not have access to formal assessments can purchase or create pre-vocational and vocational kits for assessing and learning work skills and can carry out functional assessment of real or simulated work-related tasks in school, community, and work settings.

Observing students performing work-related behaviors and tasks is one of the most powerful evaluation tools that we have for determining strengths and needed areas for growth. If a student is performing vocational activities at school or has a volunteer or paid job during the week, that can be critical for an evaluator to observe. There are also protocols that can be used to formally assess students’ skills during observations, such as the Vocational Skills Assessment Protocol from The Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS), and the Becker Work Adjustment Profile – Second Edition (BWAP-2).

  • Interviews and Parent/Educator Participation in Interest Inventories

While some transition-aged students may have trouble clearly expressing interests using words or inventories, all students have some way of communicating information to people who know them well. Transition and vocational assessments often require creativity and effort to gain informal, subjective, and anecdotal information from educators, parents, and other stakeholders who know the student well. It is useful to interview several people, asking questions about the student’s preferred leisure and school activities, areas of strength, preferences that need to be taken into account when planning for future employment, and specifically asking if there are any jobs that the interviewee is aware of that they think might be a good fit for the student in the future. Another technique is to use career interest inventories which are intended for self-report, such as the O*Net Interest Profiler (IP) or RIASEC, and ask parents or educators to fill out the inventory with what they believe the student’s preferences would be. Having a high level of correlation between parent report, educator report, and the student’s responses on picture-based or video-based testing can be extremely helpful in knowing where to focus career planning energy for the student.

Conducting vocational assessment, or any assessment, for this population of students—when tests are often not explicitly designed for them–is difficult. There are some tremendous tools specifically designed for testing students who are nonverbal or nonreaders, and there are many other assessment tools which can be made, modified, or used in nontraditional ways to gain a more complete picture of the student. The most important aspect of assessment is to choose the tools that are going to best suit the student.

For more information about vocational assessment and transition assessment at NESCA, visit our transition services page and our transition FAQs.


About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.