What is Vocational Evaluation and How Does it Benefit Adult Learners?

I'm pleased to welcome Dr. Pam Leconte, Assistant Research Professor at The George Washington University (retired) and immediate past president of the Vocational Evaluation and Career Assessment Professional Association, along with Ms. Mary Cabriele, Director of Career and Workforce Services at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School (AOH), in Washington, D.C. 

Pam brings over 40 years of knowledge and experience in Vocational Evaluation (VE) with a diversity of clients, ranging from K-12 special education students, to adult education learners and state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) clients.  As Director of Career and Workforce Services at AOH, Mary has worked with Pam to incorporate VE into the career development for many of the school's adult learners.  

Today and tomorrow, October, 27th and 28th, Pam and Mary will be joining us to talk more about VE, what it involves, the three different levels of VE and how they can be used by adult education programs to support learners with disabilities across settings.

To begin, I want to ask Pam to give us a definition for VE, and a general idea of how it can be used to support adult learners?



We will answer the first part of the question first. Vocational evaluation (VE) is different from other types of assessment that we may be accustomed to in educational settings.  For our purposes, a general definition for all types of assessment means “gathering information to make a decision(s).”  In terms of adult education, our learners may be making decisions about academic or career pathways or next steps in their lives.

First, VE should be viewed as an intervention, meaning that when someone participates in the process, they will experience changes in their knowledge of self, knowledge of careers and employment or work, and goals. They will be changed—even transformed by participating in VE.  Because they are actively engaged in the process, their images of themselves, their knowledge of what they can do, what they like or don’t like to do, or have potential to learn are positive-change outcomes.

Second, vocational evaluation must be viewed as a learning process, meaning participants learn critical information about themselves—their career interests, career and life goals, abilities, aptitudes, talents or gifts, needs, and accommodations/adaptations that they can use to mitigate their needs or in some cases their functional limitations.  They also learn by hands-on use of work samples (actual parts of jobs, which use the same tools, materials, equipment, and tasks that are used in work) the requirements of work. They can actually feel, smell, hear, and do or manipulate the work. Also, they learn about careers and often gain new knowledge about their relationship with specific careers, career pathways, and may even visualize themselves in a career—or job. Disassembling an engine, creating a graphic for a video game, taking someone’s blood pressure, analyzing soil samples are examples of work samples.

Third, vocational evaluation is authentic for the reasons cited above. Participants interact with work, either real or simulated, in the VE process. This work requires learners/participants to actually create, do, produce or perform tasks. There are no right or wrong answers and the authentic tasks require the use of higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. Individual performance is the focus of authentic assessment and this is integrated with self-assessment.

Fourth, VE is non-discriminatory.   devised as an alternative to traditional counselor- and educator-administered tests, VE was developed as an alternative to standardized testing. Most of the learners you serve have histories of failure in education or have struggled to achieve for various reasons. Giving them standardized tests may further discourage them. Equally important, the tests discriminate against learners who face reading, writing, or computing challenges. Many of them have either undiagnosed or diagnosed disabilities. Standardized testing discriminates against them as well.


The most familiar definition in our field follows.  Vocational evaluation is a comprehensive process that systematically uses work, either real or simulated, as the focal point for assessment and vocational exploration, the purpose of which is to assist individuals in vocational development. Vocational evaluation incorporates medical, psychological, social, vocational, educational, cultural, and economic data into the process to attain the goals of evaluation (Dowd, 1993).

Vocational evaluation is the third, most intensive and comprehensive level of vocational assessment services, which serve as an umbrella term that includes a hierarchy of services. The hierarchy is comprised of three service levels designed to increase in intensity, breadth and depth of service from Level I to Level III. 

Please view the YouTube video by clicking on the link to hear a ten-minute explanation of the Three Levels of Vocational Assessment, if you want more information. The video was made by Amanda McCarthy.

Participating in Level I services may meet the needs of most people seeking career planning or vocational assistance.  For those facing additional challenges that require more information, Level II may be appropriate.  Finally, for those with the greatest needs, estimated to represent approximately 15% (Nadolsky, 1971), Level III is necessary. Briefly, the levels are defined as

Level I, Needs Assessment or Screening:  This may provide a summary of existing vocationally-relevant information about a participant and consists of data gathered from direct service providers or with relevant people who know the participant, interviews with the participant. The information collected pertains to interest, aptitude, achievement information, and educational and pertinent social history from review of records, or preliminary/basic job matching. Much information is provided by participants themselves about interest, preferences, and achievement.

If vocational planning or career decision-making cannot proceed or additional questions remain, participation in Level II is recommended.

                Level II, Exploration or Clinical:  Originally defined as a case study process (Crow, 1975; Dowd, 1993), this level involves collecting additional vocationally-relevant information from  interest inventories, learning style preference instruments, aptitude tests, transferable skill analysis, exploration of career information systems (e.g., O*NET or NOC), limited work samples or vocational          classroom try-outs, observation of behavior, job-readiness assessment, participant interviews and others' input. Data can be collected by teachers, direct service providers. Determining levels of career maturity and career aspirations may be included.  Job analysis and considerations for assistive technology may                also be included depending on the needs of participants.

                If planning cannot proceed due to insufficient information, referral to the next level--the most in-depth assessment process: vocational evaluation is     recommended.

Level III, Vocational Evaluation: This is a comprehensive vocational assessment process which requires that additional data be collected using the following methods: review of medical, psychological, educational and social information; formal or standardized instruments; work samples; exploratory vocational (career technical education) or job tryouts; observation of work behavior, community-based assessments (e.g., situational assessments, on-the-job evaluations, job try-outs).

Experiential vocational evaluation is designed as a more holistic approach distinguished by the use of real or simulated work as the focal point for assessment and career exploration to assist learners/participants in their vocational and career development This level is time-limited but may occur more than once in a participant's lifetime.



Thanks, Pam, for this thorough definition of what VE is, and the levels used to support those going through the learning process.  A lot of times when we hear the word 'evaluation,' we think of standardized assessments.  I really appreciate you defining VE as a learning process, where the goal is to educate the learner and those working with them on their academic and career goals.   

While VE also uses standardized assessments, it's very different from what we may think about educational or psychological evaluations.  Too often in those types of evaluations, the goals and/or results of the evaluation and how it relates to the participants' learning and employment planning isn't always made clear to the learner.  VE is different in that it places the participant's learning through the process at the heart of the evaluation.  By doing this, VE informs both the learner-participant and the staff working with them on their areas of interest, their abilities, and their aptitudes for learning.

I wonder if you can tell us more about what kinds of learners make good candidates for VE? Who is referred for VE through Academy of Hope (AOH) and when and where does that learning process take place as part of an adult student's educational experience?

I hope I didn't overwhelm everyone with the long reply to your first questions Mike.  The next response is much shorter. 

Any person who desires to enter or change careers are excellent candidates. Adult learners who have or currently face the challenges of unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, previous adjudication or incarceration will benefit. Also, anyone with a disability, or who possesses learning difficulties, people who will be entering the workforce for the first time, or those who have struggled with addictions will also benefit. Because the VE process is customized and individualized for each person, the process is built to meet anyone’s needs.

Remember, those learners who have failed in previous educational or academic endeavors are prime candidates given the non-discriminatory nature of VE.  We are sure that in your work as adult educators, you have identified many learners with learning challenges and/or disabilities. You have to meet the needs that K-12 educators failed to do. Given the hands-on nature of vocational evaluation, either by using work samples, simulated work tasks, or situational assessments (having learners try work within the community while someone observes their learning potential at particular jobs and job tasks), your learners can finally show themselves and others that they do have talents, skills, or aptitudes for certain types of work and careers.  Just a note:  Having certain aptitudes, means learners have the potential to learn specific skills in a given occupational area.

VE uncovers previously hidden or unknown abilities, gifts, and strengths related to career planning and employment.  This is just one reason why VE is considered a strengths-based process. 

The Academy of Hope (AoH) used to employ a full-time vocational evaluator. She received referrals from Washington, DC public schools, Charter schools, and vocational rehabilitation.  Since she left, some assessment activities have been integrated into their career coaching curriculum. They have plans to revitalize the use of work samples and simulated work tasks soon. They will be training some career coaching staff members to administer these as part of a more comprehensive assessment process. The use of the CASAS helps to pinpoint academic strengths and needs as learners begin their educational endeavors at the AoH.

Many, if not most of our students in the workforce programs would make excellent VE candidates. The need is absolutely there. We have students that enter these programs who don't "self disclose" any sort of disability/learning challenge that they may have.  So as a result, we don't know until weeks into the program and then we have to work backwards to see what accommodations we can provide and/or determine if this program/career direction is truly the right/best choice for them.   We do conduct informal data gathering on each potential student by talking to their case managers, employers etc.  We also ask our academic teachers and our own student support specialists to fill out a "rubric" that assesses their "readiness" for high level workforce certifications.  Once we complete this information gathering, we then do extensive interviews with the students to rate their readiness.   This may provide an "ok" summary of relevant information about a participant but we need to dig deeper.  We have had VE who were able to do Level II and Level III assessments prior to students entering programs.  That is the ideal scenario and prepared our students well.   But we have faced competing priorities including time, budget constraints within our organization as well as other internal and external factors that resulted in missing a VE.   As a result, our student retention has been a huge challenge.  My hope is to bring  VE back in who can begin working with students on the front end before they begin and be able to provide critical baseline data to our instructional staff.  Then during the program the VE would be able to conduct class observations, meet with the team and provide the continuity of support the student needs to reach their goals. 



Hi, Mike, thank you for this question. See our response to it below. We hope this is helpful and useful.

With some targeted training, adult educators and resource staff can conduct Levels 1 and 2 of vocational assessment, however, vocational evaluators should conduct Level 3.  Vocational evaluators can provide all three levels of services, but are expert in offering the third level as they must be well-versed, or competent, in knowledge of work, occupations, and careers as well as in the attributes of participants, especially those with disabilities. Vocational evaluators are career and vocational (work) experts as well as disability specialists.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to hire vocational evaluators. Almost everywhere in the U.S. we have a shortage of well-trained evaluators, due to the lack of graduate education for the profession.  For adult educators to locate a trained, and hopefully, certified vocational evaluator, who can guide and assist them in locating appropriate materials and simulated work tasks, you can contact the Vocational Evaluation and Career Assessment Professionals (VECAP) association at www.vecap.org. The Home Office Coordinator will route your requests to appropriate people.

You can also contact the Canadian College of Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals (CVRP) because the U.S. and Canada share the professional credential called the International Certified Vocational Evaluator, or ICVE.  For more information you can visit the CVRP website: www.cvrp.ca or contact them at info@cvrp.ca to speak with one of their administrators.  This is a relatively new credential, but is rigorous and based on years of research and an examination that is regularly vetted and validated. The CVRP offers a directory of ICVEs from both the U.S. and Canada.

Additionally, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), which also offers a credential for vocational evaluators: www.crccommission.com.

Other sources for finding vocational evaluators in your communities include your state vocational rehabilitation agencies (every state and territory has one) or, possibly, local community rehabilitation programs, such as those sponsored by the ARC, Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy, etc.

We recommend that you put together an inventory of assessment options you have and want to acquire so that you can either seek training from VECAP or that you can begin to train yourselves about how to put together a vocational evaluation process that includes a combination of interest inventories (varied to meet different learner needs, such as non-reading and both low and high reading levels), learning style preference assessments, aptitude tests, such as the CAPS (Career Ability Placement Survey) published by Edits: www.edts.net. The CAPS is part of an online system (also available in paper) that includes the COPS (Career Occupational Preference System Interest Inventory, and the COPES (Career Orientation Placement and Evaluation Survey), which is a values survey. 

Of course, there are many, many of such assessment instruments available online as well as in paper and pencil formats. You and your staffs will have to review these to decide which options best meet your learners’ needs. Please take caution as some of those available online are not as reputable as we would hope.

In addition to these options, it takes time, but it is relatively easy to create/replicate simulated work tasks from various occupational areas, such as collecting the materials, food, and tools to make a salad by following written, oral, or video directions.  These and/or community-based assessment options such as situational assessments are time-consuming to set up, but are the best methods for identifying interests, temperaments, skills, and potential to learn in a specific occupational area. If you already have relationships with employers through your workforce development programs, you could collaborate with them to set up some job try-outs, job shadowing, or situational assessments. These allow learners to engage with work of interest to determine if they like it and think they can succeed in it.

Thanks for sharing this background on who can provide which levels of VE.  It's helpful to know that adult educators can become proficient in offering their learners level one and two evaluations. 

Learners who would most benefit from level three evaluations, likely would receive these services through the state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system, a healthcare/rehabilitation facility, or other community rehabilitation partner.  What role, if any, can adult educators play in helping advocate for their learners to have access to VE services?  For learners who have had a VE done by one of these outside agencies, how can adult educators best work with these providers to gain access to the results?

Lastly, for any of the levels of VE, how can adult education programs and their partners utilize the results to support adult learners in their programs and the workplace?

Hi, Mike, I do hope folks will consider integrating Levels 1 and 2 into their adult education and workforce development programs. Again, if they want some guidance, they can contact VECAP (www.vecap.org), their state VR agency, and/or a community rehabilitation program.  Today, many providers, especially in the mental health field are using the Discovery assessment strategy/extended interview (http://www.marcgold.com) or are incorporating it into their programs for educational and career planning. 

No type of assessment is worth providing unless the finding are explained to the participant/learner. The same is true for VE. Among the benefits or uses of vocational evaluation it can provide recommendations based on the findings identified during the assessment process. These recommendations can specify next steps for learners, adult educators, as well as postsecondary educators, counselors, and employers to implement. Next steps, can identify appropriate employment or training programs that correlate preferences and abilities, skills, and aptitudes for which a learner is best suited.

Because the VE process identifies and describes learning style preferences, adult educators can meet learners where they are.  Adapting to their learning styles is critical to adult learners’ success.

VE also determines learners’ employment and career interests, temperaments (dispositions to specific types of work and work environments), and skills, the vocational evaluator can provide several career paths and/or employment options for learners.  Also, VE determines precise needs which may require remediation or accommodations so learners can achieve their goals.

Areas of need include specific academic, mental health, emotional, and/or physical obstacles along with suggestions about how to mitigate these so a learner can attend postsecondary education, find employment, or begin on a desired career pathway. In such cases, you would design an academic plan to help a learner acquire reading, computational, or other skills (e.g., science, civics, technology, digital) needed for a desired job or career.

For example, if someone with a reading disability demonstrates abilities for masonry work, adult educators would help that learner recognize and learn occupationally-specific vocabulary, such as plumb, cement, joiner, furrowing, mixture, etc. If this learner had math needs such as how do linear measuring, the educator could use actual (e.g., project-based) tables and chairs to teach measuring.

Of course, mental health needs are the hardest to meet and this is an area where we often have to rely on partners to work with learners. Vocational evaluators can be sources for finding reputable support personnel.  VE can also suggest types of assistive technology for learners who need these to even the playing fields of education and employment. They also are familiar with free or low-cost assistive technology solutions for learners. For example, they may recommend that learners use some simple assistive technology devices or services that are listed on the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website. All consultation services are free from the federally-funded. You can also call experts at JAN to ask them questions.  See www.jan.org or call 800-526-7234.

For learners with the greatest needs, adult educators can refer them to their state vocational rehabilitation offices. If they are deemed eligible for VR services, adult educators can work in tandem with rehabilitation counselors. VR can locate Level 3 (Vocational Evaluation) services for these learners and evaluators will determine which workforce development programs and literacy strategies are compatible with the learners' needs, preferences, strengths and abilities. If VR does not refer their learners for VE, the adult learners can certainly advocate for that to happen. The squeaky wheel still gets the grease. Sometimes, VR counselors are concerned about spending money for services, but like all of us, their jobs are to act ethically in the best interests of the learners. 

Adult educators will certainly have access to the results of any assessment, including VE. If a VR counselor is reluctant to share these, the learner can share them. They can use these to use recommended strategies, search careers of interest, practice social skills needed for workplace success, and to help arrange transportation, which VR may pay for if it is related to the learners' educational and vocational (e.g., training and employment) goals.

If anyone has any other questions, please ask. Thanks!


Thanks again for your responses to these last questions, Pam.  You've done a great job breaking down the components of VE and explaining how the process can be integrated into adult education programming.  AOH has worked to incorporate the different levels of VE into their program, even in the face of funding and staffing challenges. This just goes to show how much the process is integral to adult learners' learning about themselves, setting academic and career goals, and having clear pathways to achieve these goals in the future.

I want to second Pam's invitation to ask questions about VE and how your learners can benefit from this uniquely valuable learning experience.  What questions do you have?  

I also want to personally thank Pam for her time and commitment to the fields of VE and special education.  In full disclosure, she is the reason I began working in the field over 15 years ago when I was a graduate student in her program.  Her knowledge and support of people in discovering their strengths and abilities, in a world that sometimes focuses on their disability, is at the heart of VE.  Anyone seeking to understand this process better can find no better expert on the subject than her.