Standardized tests of academic achievement play an increasingly important role in how school systems measure what students learn. Standardized tests are designed to give all students the same (or similar) test items under similar conditions, allowing for comparison of resultant scores across participants. Some standardized tests are “high stakes,” in that there are decisions made based on student scores, either for the student (e.g., course completion, high school graduation, or program entry), for teachers (e.g., merit pay), or for school systems (e.g., school ratings of excellence). It is thus important that these tests be equally accessible and valid for all students.
For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, there are many potential barriers that may lead to unfair tests or unfair testing situations. For example, the content of some test items may presume that a student has experience with sound, such as a reading passage about music, leading to a test item that is biased towards students who are hearing. Alternatively, a student may have learned about a subject via a sign language modality and not be as familiar with how the content is expressed in written/spoken language (e.g., content area vocabulary). Reading a test item in a different language (i.e., the written version of a spoken language) instead of seeing the test item in sign language may therefore change the difficulty of the test for that student. At the same time, print vocabulary is obviously important for literacy and learning, and so decisions around accommodating tests with different language modalities are not to be taken lightly.
Test accommodations are often provided for students who are deaf or hard of hearing in an attempt to reduce these barriers to test content and improve comparability of test scores. Some accommodations are used by many students, including additional time, a separate room for testing, or a dictionary/glossary. Other test accommodations are more specific to students who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as having a sign language interpreter translate (or transliterate) the test directions or, in some cases, the test items themselves. Because some of these accommodations involve changing the conditions under which students take the tests, research is needed to verify whether accommodated test scores still represent similar levels of student knowledge as those scores from students who took the test without accommodations.
What we know and what we don’t know
There is a small amount of research on the effects of test accommodations on scores from standardized academic assessments for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Most of the research is focused on tests that, in the un-accommodated format, are paper-and-pencil tests presented in written English. What we know about test accommodations often depends on what student demographic factors were included in the study. These findings should be taken as a starting point for further research that includes more detail about student characteristics and how they influence the effect of test accommodations.
We do know that students using a sign language accommodation usually do not score higher on the tests than when they rely only on the English text. This has been found across age ranges, from elementary school to college age students. We do not know (enough) about how students with different levels of literacy proficiency or content area knowledge utilize sign language as an accommodation, although it appears that neither a student with strong English literacy skills nor a student with strong sign language skills see a benefit. We also do not know how the quality of an educational interpreter or other sign source affects student performance, or even what the proficiency level of signed assessments is out in the field.
As for other accommodations, such as additional time, we know that the findings are often mixed. When additional time is used in conjunction with another accommodation, such as a sign language interpreter, its role is to support and facilitate the additional time needed when using a visual modality. There is no research, however, that addresses the effect of additional time within research as a stand-alone accommodation. The focus on additional time as part of a package of accommodations thus parallels its use in practice.
Caution is often warranted when considering decisions around accommodations and standardized assessments of academic proficiency. From what we know, some flexibility is available in the type of sign-based accommodation provided, as long as a) students are familiar with that source and b) it is of high quality. It is unlikely that sign-based accommodations make tests easier for students, and thus could be a part of a fair assessment. However, there are still gaps in what we know about how students’ characteristics may influence their use of sign-based accommodations. Best practices in decision-making emphasize trying accommodations out first within a non-high stakes setting, particularly in contrast with practice taking the test without an accommodation. As each student may respond to accommodations differently, this information could guide fair practices and ensure stronger validity in how the resulting test score is used.
Posted on April 1, 2014
by Stephanie W. Cawthon, Department of Educational Psychology, The University of Texas – Austin
Cawthon, S., Winton, S., Garberoglio, C., & Gobble, M. (2011). The effects of American Sign Language as an assessment accommodation for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16, 198-211.