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Transition Assessments: Formal Versus Informal

Student completing an assessment

At a Glance

Distinction Between Assessments: Explore the differences between formal assessments (standardized, score-based, and interpreted by trained professionals) and informal assessments (flexible, observation-based, and reliant on various sources like parents and educators).

Usage Contexts: Share guidance on when to use formal assessments (for backing up institutional decisions and measuring specific outcomes) versus informal assessments (for flexible, quick adaptation to student needs and gaps in knowledge).

Types of Assessments: Details various types of formal and informal assessments, categorized based on their purpose, such as determining baseline skills, career interests, and progress towards goals.

Welcome back to our transition assessment series where we have been covering the basics of transition assessment, including what it is in part 1 and why we use it in part 2. In part 3 we want to talk about two different types of transition assessments, their uses, and why we might use each in a given situation. 

While part 3 will be the final part of our Transition Assessment Series for the time being, we would love to hear from you about your experience with transition assessment and if there are any other topics related to transition assessment that you’d like to see included in this series. 

Just drop us a line at if there is anything you’d like to share, and in the meantime we will take a closer look at what constitutes a formal assessment versus and informal assessment.

Identifying Formal Versus Informal Assessments

If you have checked out our free Transition Assessment Database, one thing that might be immediately apparent is that there are just too many types of transition assessments out there to have a neat list that includes and cleanly divides all assessments between formal and informal. 

There are quite a few assessments in the database already, and that list is neither exhaustive nor able to account for new types of assessments that come out all the time! As a result it can be helpful to know some criteria for each to make it easier to identify whatever assessment you may come across.

The Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) identified the following criteria for formal and informal assessments, adapted from the National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center’s Age Appropriate Transition Assessment Toolkit. Please note that while these are important identifiers for each type of assessment, not every assessment will meet every criteria and sometimes you may need to make a judgment call. 

When doing so, it is worth remembering that the distinction between the two types of assessments is primarily for our benefit and is not about meeting a specific requirement. Please note that we have also slightly modified the language of some of the criteria for the purpose of clarification. 

Formal assessments most often:

  • Include a standardized process or procedure
  • Result in a score that is meant to be interpreted by a trained professional
  • Produce results that inherently include an explanation of how it will impact future student plans

Informal assessments most often:

  • Have less structure that is more flexible
  • Relies on descriptive observations
  • Can be collected from a variety of resources including parents, paraprofessionals, and anyone who knows the student well enough to offer meaningful feedback related to the topic

When Should I Use Formal Versus Informal?

One reality of formal versus informal assessments is that there is no hard legal requirement about how many of each you should use, or even whether you need to use both at all. 

As we have noted in previous parts, the crucial legal requirement that needs to be filled before starting on a student’s postsecondary transition plan is based on your knowledge of a given student’s goals, gaps in meeting that goal, and ways those gaps can be addressed. A good mix of different assessments can, however, bolster your claims and demonstrate the extent of your due diligence.

Because formal assessments often have a more formal institutional backing them and are associated with a degree of expertise and even a practitioner, they can be especially helpful in backing up your assertions that sufficient assessment has taken place. 

Informal assessments on the other hand can be much more flexible and quickly implemented when you notice a gap in your knowledge of a student or a student’s goals change. 

Formal assessments may be more rigid and demanding on a student but also be geared toward specific measurable outcomes, while informal assessments are more easily adjusted to fit student needs but also reliant on the observations you make rather than a specific numeric measurement or tangible criteria. 

Types of Formal Assessments

The previous OCALI article we shared includes several different types of formal assessments as well as a brief description of their purpose. To further supplement that list we will take some of these assessment types and group them by types of common transition related questions or challenges they might help address.

What are my student’s baseline skills and needs?

  • Adaptive Behavior/Daily Living Skills Assessments
  • General Aptitude Tests
  • Achievement Tests
  • Self-Determination Assessments

What does my student want to do after they graduate?

  • General Aptitude Tests
  • Interest Inventories
  • Temperament Inventories/Instruments

What skills does my student need to work on to meet their goals?

  • Specific Aptitude Tests
  • Career Maturity or Employability Tests
  • Transition Planning Inventories
  • Self-Determination Assessments 

These assessments are also pulled from the OCALI article, but you may notice that they are more open ended and could cover a huge range of potential approaches and sometimes involve quite a few different people depending on what you want to know.  They are helpful guideposts for determining the type of assessment that you think might apply but also lend themselves to flexibility and individualization based on your knowledge of each specific situation.

Does my student still want to continue along this career path?

  • Interviews and Questionnaires
  • Direct Observation

What are some ways I can support my student in meeting their goals?

  • Environmental Analysis*
  • Curriculum-Based Assessments
  • Interviews and Questionnaires

Is my student progressing at a pace they feel comfortable with and will help them meet their goals on their timeline?

  • Interviews and Questionnaires
  • Direct Observation
  • Curriculum-Based Assessments

Do we need to make any minor adjustments to our plan?

  • Interviews and Questionnaires
  • Direct Observation
  • Curriculum-Based Assessments

*A quick note about environmental analysis: While on the surface an environmental analysis might not seem very different from direct observation, the main reason we draw the distinction is that environmental analysis focuses more on the types of accommodations that might benefit a student in a job setting whereas direct observation can include those details but also hones in on a student's skills, interests, performance, and other details that paint a more complete picture of who the student is rather than just what support they may need. Both approaches are valid, and the main reason to use an environmental analysis is when you specifically want to gather information on whether a student could benefit from accommodations. 

Types of Informal Assessments


With that we are wrapping up our series for now, but we hope the information we have shared has shed some more light on the ways that assessments both help us fill a specific legal requirement in supporting our students and help us do a better job of supporting our students in meeting their goals. 

If you have an experience with transition assessment that you would like to share or if you’d like to see us go even more in depth into this topic then we would love to hear from you at Otherwise we wish you the best of luck in finding the right assessments to meet your student’s needs without feeling overly intrusive or taking up too much time. 

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Previous article What is Community-Based Instruction?
Next article Why Do We Use Transition Assessments?

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