Supporting Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities and Support Needs as They Transition from High School

Student on computer

by Christopher Sanford, Amber McConnell, James Martin, Renee Cameto, and Lori Hodge
May 3, 2022

Researchers from SRI International and the University of Oklahoma are collaborating to create a new assessment tool to help educators ensure that students with significant cognitive disabilities (or extensive support needs) leave high school with the skills they need to be successful.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities typically include those with intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, traumatic brain injury, or autism. Significant cognitive disabilities is not a disability category under IDEA but is determined by a specific cognitive assessment score. Unlike existing transition assessments, which are based solely on input from parents and educators, the Transition Assessment and Goal Generator – Alternate (TAGG-A) will obtain information from the students themselves to generate a report that will guide the students’ final years of secondary school, including students’ greatest needs and relative strengths, recommended goals, measurable objectives, and coordinated activities. This report can form the basis of a student’s transition plan.

Transition plans are meant to guide educators and families in preparing students for their next steps after high school, including education or training, employment, and/or independent living; federal law mandates that all students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) have a transition plan in place when they turn 16 (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004).i Educators are tasked with identifying current student strengths and interests and providing instruction in areas of need to ensure students leave high school equipped with skills and experiences associated with positive outcomes.

What will be different about this new transition assessment tool?

TAGG-A logo

The TAGG-A will provide transition goals based on a fully validated assessment that includes items accessible to students with a range of cognitive and communications skills. Many students with a disability take an active role in their own assessment by completing paper/pencil or online assessments, participating in skill assessments, and engaging in interviews; however, students with significant disabilities have more barriers and challenges to accessing appropriate transition assessments. The TAGG-A will be the first transition assessment to capture students’ preferences, strengths, and needs directly from the student, in addition to educator and family ratings. Importantly, it will also be the first transition assessment tool designed specifically to measure dimensions that have been shown to be associated with positive post-high school outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

What’s key for students with significant cognitive disabilities?

As a first step to developing the tool, the cross-institution research team determined the key skills, behaviors, expectations, and experiences (SBEEs) associated with positive post-high school outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities, such as education, employment, and independent living. Through an extensive literature review, McConnell et al. (2021) identified 103 SBEEs associated with employment, further education, and independent living for these students, and grouped them into 10 dimensions.ii

Dimension Skills, Behaviors, Expectations, Experiences
Academics Integrated with similarly aged typically developing peers, included in general education, have higher functional academic skills, and able to complete 3-step tasks
Agency Assistance Receives services from outside agencies (e.g., community- and/or school-based job readiness training, job search assistance, and competitive work in an integrated setting with ongoing support services)
Employment Has the ability to obtain a job and maintain employment (e.g., knows where to look for jobs and how to apply, uses social networks to obtain employment, and demonstrates appropriate work behaviors)
Family Home Expectations and Support Has family members with high expectations who are involved in the transition planning process and provide opportunities for growth (e.g., expectations from the family of being self-supporting after high school, has family involved in transition planning with school staff, engages in household responsibilities)
Personal Experiences Experiences outside of a school setting (e.g., paid employment, vocational training, postsecondary programs, and access to transportation)
School Experiences In-school experiences (e.g., paid community-based jobs supervised by school staff, teacher expectations for student employment, and work study opportunities)
Self-Determination Demonstrates behaviors associated with self-determination skills (e.g., self-advocacy, self-management, autonomy, and empowerment)
Self-Care Demonstrates a range of independent living (e.g., feeding and dressing) and functional skills (e.g., telling time and using the telephone)
Social Demonstrates appropriate social skills and behaviors at school and work
Technology Uses technology to communicate, complete tasks, learn new things, and/or follow a schedule (e.g., using a cell phone to maintain a daily schedule)

Why is the TAGG-A important?

By providing the only opportunity currently available for students with significant cognitive disabilities to share their preferences, strengths, and needs as part of the transition planning process, the TAGG-A helps promote these students’ self-determination. Self-determination has long been a fundamental cornerstone of transition planning and research consistently demonstrates the importance of self-determination as an essential contributor to successful post-high school outcomes for students with disabilities, including more positive education, employment, and independent living experiences.

When will the TAGG-A be available?

Since the identification of these post-high school outcomes dimensions, the research team has developed assessment items based on the SBEEs, conducted two field tests, analyzed the results, and revised the assessment based on the analyses. Students with significant disabilities along with their educators and families can help inform the ongoing development of the TAGG-A assessment—more information is available on the TAGG-A project website. The initial assessment tool (Teacher version, only) will be available in spring 2022.

i Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004).
ii McConnell, A., Sanford, C., Martin, J., Cameto, R., & Hodge, L. (2021). Skills, behaviors, expectations, and experiences associated with improved postsecondary outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 46(4), 240–258.

Topics: Assessment Product development Students with disabilities Transition to postsecondary