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Transition Assessment: What is it anyway? How is it different from neuropsychological evaluation?

By December 17, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

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

If you have a child who receives special education services or work in education, you are likely familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004). This is the law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to free appropriate public education (FAPE) and that dictates that the purpose of special education and related services is to prepare students with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living.

IDEA 2004 mandates that students have measurable postsecondary goals written in their individualized educational programs (IEPs), that describe the outcomes that a team expects for the student to achieve after exiting public education and that these goals must be “based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and where appropriate, independent living skills.”[1] But, IDEA 2004 does not specifically define transition assessment.

Instead, the best and most commonly accepted definition for transition assessment comes from the Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT). DCDT defines transition assessment as an “…ongoing process of collecting data on the individual’s needs, preferences, and interests as they relate to the demands of current and future working, educational, living, and personal and social environments.”[2]

Transition assessment can include formal testing, such as a standardized, published tests that compare students to others by age or grade or informal activities, such as interviewing or observing a student. Most students who are transition-aged (i.e., 14 or older in Massachusetts; 16 by federal law) have already had some assessments that will inform their transition planning, such as school evaluations, private evaluations, standardized academic testing, report cards, or even activities that happen within their guidance curriculum (e.g., assessment of strengths, learning style, personality type, career interests). But often, there will still be some testing needed to help better determine a student’s strengths and aptitudes, their preferences and interests for postsecondary adult life, and the gaps between their current knowledge and abilities and the requirements of the living, learning, and working environments in which they plan to function when they exit high school.

At NESCA, transition assessment is a highly individualized process that is designed to get a better sense of a student’s postsecondary living, learning, social, and vocational goals, to determine the strengths the student has that will help them reach those goals as well as the skills a student needs to develop to get there. While it is rare for two students to have the same assessment battery, transition assessment at NESCA often evaluates abilities, such as self-care, self-direction, self-advocacy, career interests, career aptitudes, communication, community use, functional academics, health and safety, domestic skills, leisure, readiness for college or other forms of postsecondary learning and training, transferrable work skills and readiness for employment. Once the student’s profile is understood, specific recommendations, aimed at readying that student for transition from high school to the next phase of life, are provided.

Often parents of transition-aged students are familiar with the term “neuropsychological evaluation“ and a student may have even had this type of private evaluation. But there can be some confusion regarding the difference between these two types of comprehensive testing. Neuropsychological evaluation focuses primarily on a student’s learning profile and the fit of that learner within their current academic setting. A good neuropsychological evaluation is a comprehensive assessment of a child’s functioning in many domains, including communication, visual-spatial ability, problem solving, memory, attention, social skills, and emotional status. The assessment of these functions is based upon information obtained from the child’s history, clinical observations, and testing results. Moreover, one of the most important aspects of a neuropsychological evaluation is the integration of all the information about a child into a meaningful profile of functioning that describes “The Whole Child.”

In contrast, a transition assessment evaluates the fit between a student and their future preferred learning, living, and employment activities and environments. While information from a neuropsychological evaluation about a student’s learning profile is greatly informative, a transition assessment gives equal weight to a student’s daily living skills, social skills, coping skills, pre-vocational skills, career interests and preferences, and self-advocacy skills. While transition assessments provide detailed recommendations related to current educational programming and transition services, a strong focus of transition assessment is an emphasis on what will be needed now, and in the near future, to assist a student in functioning, and, actually being successful and satisfied, in their postsecondary adult life.

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

[1] 34 CFR § 300.320(b)

[2] Division on Career Development and Transition (DCDT) of the Council for Exceptional Children, 1997, p. 70-71



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. 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 or call 617-658-9800.