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Math skills and transition planning

by Mary Mazzoni on July 20, 2012

What  math skills will your child need for his or her post-high school goals?

Notice – I didn’t ask about math courses (or grades).

We’re talking today about actual skills. 

Transition assessment involves relating a student’s skills (as well as interests) to the actual requirements of their post-high school goal.

Today we’ll look at tools IEP teams can use to pinpoint math skills kids need for specific post-high school goals.

Equipped with that information, a team can assess the student’s present levels in these skill areas, and:

  • plan effective instruction in essential skills and/or
  • identify “reasonable accommodations” that may be available in work and postsecondary education environments.


There are many paths to employment. These include self-employment and customized employment, whereby an individual provides a service that matches his or her particular skills and interests. Therefore, it can be said, in one sense, that no math skills are categorically required for employment – if someone is able to tailor a customized or self employment option.

That said, if your child is seeking to be employed by a business for a defined job title – it’s important to know the math (and other academic and functional skills) that are required.

Licensing or certification requirements

As part of career research, your child should find out if a career of interest requires a certification or licensing exam. A qualified person, such as a guidance counselor or vocational rehabilitation counselor, can help your child connect with websites that offer sample practice exams that can help you identify the math skills needed.

Often kids are surprised to find that even careers that do not require a college degree do require testing involving extensive math skills.

Career readiness certificate

Many large companies now include pre-employment testing as part of their hiring process. The National Career Readiness Certificate identifies several levels of certified “readiness” (levels 3 through 7) using the ACT WorkKeys test.

The Math WorkKeys test applies math skills to workplace situations. Here are some sample questions from each level.

Your local One-Stop Career Center is likely to provide WorkKeys testing – and may also provide KeyTrain a computerized instructional program aligned with WorkKeys. KeyTrain and WorkKeys are also built into some programs such as Keys2Work - that are used by some high schools.

Placement tests

Community colleges generally have an “open admissions” policy. Anyone can be accepted for admission (without SATs, ACTs or other prerequisites). However – a certain score on (math, reading and writing) placement tests is required for enrollment in most community college credit classes.

The two placement tests used by most community colleges (and some 4 year colleges) are COMPASS and Accuplacer. The numerical (arithmetic) portions of these tests, which are required for entry level college math classes, do not require higher level math skills.

You can download a free pdf of sample COMPASS math questions here. At the end of the numerical test, you’ll see a list of skills (including operations with whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios, and averages). These are the skills needed for enrollment in basic college credit math classes.

Sadly, the majority of incoming students (including those without disabilities) do not achieve a qualifying score on basic math placement tests. (Even though they’ve been enrolled in high school math classes such as geometry and algebra.) Again – the key is – skills – not courses and grades.

When students don’t achieve a qualifying score, they must enroll in non-credit remedial courses (which don’t apply to a degree and aren’t covered by financial aid) – until they are ready to achieve a qualifying score. Often, the remediation does not occur in a classroom, but through an online program for which the student must pay tuition.

It is important for the IEP team to look closely at the specific math skills needed for a student’s post – high school goal and to tailor math instruction during high school to the skills needed to reach that goal.

Find out what placement test is used by the school your student plans to attend. Using sample placement tests, assess your child’s skills, and work with the IEP team to develop a plan to teach needed skills prior to graduation. KhanAcademy  provides free video modeling and practice in specific math skills.


Many, but not all, 4 year colleges use SAT and/or ACT scores, in combination with other factors, to make admissions decisions.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) College Navigator allows families to evaluate colleges by various criteria. By going to their site here, and clicking on “other search options” – you can enter an SAT score range to determine what percentage of students accepted for enrollment in that college obtained a score within that range.

Wondering about the differences between ACT and SAT?   Here’s a good comparison.

Bottom line – what math skills are required?

The free Math SAT Test Prep section of, in combination with the College Board “Official SAT Study Guide”, can answer that question. The Khan Academy site demonstrates the solution to each of the questions in the “Official SAT Study Guide” – and also refers the student to other sections of the Khan Academy site for additional practice for specific skills.

More than test prep

There’s been a lot of talk about tests in this post. But don’t get the idea that the solution in massive test prep efforts.

The solution is focused, effective math instruction.

There are three important aspects of math instruction to consider:

  • Math fact fluency
  • Computation
  • Problem solving

Math fact fluency means that a student knows addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts automatically – without thinking. Why is this important? Because having to think about math facts (or using a calculator or chart) makes it much more difficult for students to apply those facts to math computation and problem solving. Ideal math fact fluency is 40 correct facts per minute.

Believe it or not – five minutes a day of  free online practice at sites like MathFactsPro can significantly improve math fact fluency in a surprisingly short period of time.

Math computation requires using operations and processes to solve math problems. Many students have gaps in their math computation skills. Often these gaps involve skills such as fractions, decimals, percentages, place value, averages, order of operations, measurement, and ratios. The very same skills often included in placement tests and career readiness tests.

Although these skills are often introduced in elementary school, they are often not taught to mastery.  Khan Academy is an excellent free resource that demonstrates each explicit skill and provides continual practice (until the student gets ten correct answers in a row) – before moving on to the next skill. However, the program doesn’t replace assessment and direct individualized instruction.

Applied problem solving  involves what kids often call “word problems”.  As they learn computation skills, kids need to also learn when and how to apply those skills to real world problems. The WorkKeys applied math test is all about knowing how to apply rather basic computation skills to workplace problems. While KeyTrain can provide practice problems, it doesn’t replace individualized direction instruction in problem solving skills.

Making the connection

Understanding the math skill requirements of post-high school goals is necessary for effective transition assessment. And when kids understand that skills are directly related to their personal goals, they are more motivated to do the hard work required to learn those skills.

Your turn

Once again, we’ve covered a lot of ground in one post. Have questions? Use the comment section below or send me an email.

Did you find this post helpful? Please share it. Thanks!

Photo credit – Alan Cleaver at Flicker

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