American Sign Language Assessments for Deaf Children

The issue

Recent legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) call for educators to use student performance data to guide individual instruction. Educators can administer American Sign Language (ASL) assessments to document the ASL skills of children who use sign language for communication and instruction. ASL assessments can evaluate students’ receptive (i.e., what they comprehend when someone signs to them) and expressive (i.e., their ability to clearly convey their own message) ASL skills. These results enable teachers, interpreters, and parents to communicate with and instruct a student at his or her current language level.

What we know

A handful of ASL assessments are available to teachers for administration with P-12 deaf students. The ASL Receptive Skills Test is a computer-administered comprehension test in which a student watches 42 short video clips and responds by pointing to one of four pictures. It takes about 12 minutes to complete this test. The ASL-RST provides information on a student’s skills across nine grammatical categories. This assessment has been used with deaf students 3 to 22 years of age.

The ASL Discrimination Test is a computer-based test that presents two signed sentences for which a student determines if the sentences are the same or different. Time to complete the test is determined by a student’s performance. An overall score and level of proficiency is provided at test completion. This test is geared toward adolescent deaf students.

Expressively, educators typically elicit language samples and use rubrics to evaluate a student’s ASL skills. For instance, Herzig’s ASL Scale of Development evaluates language skills across nine areas (e.g., syntax, questions, classifiers, etc.) and five proficiency levels (i.e., beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced, and advanced). Similarly, the Signed Reading Fluency Rubric (SRFR) was created to determine a signing student’s reading fluency across 13 ASL areas and five proficiency levels. The SRFR is easily adaptable to evaluating a child’s signed rendition of a picture book, so that the process of mediating one language (printed English) into another language (ASL) is removed.

Specific skills, such as vocabulary knowledge, can be measured through production tasks in which students are presented with a category and they sign all of the items they can think of within the given category in one minute. Results for the categories of animals and food are published for deaf K-12 students. In the same vein, educators can evaluate students’ knowledge of ASL phonology by administering the 51U task. Within this task, students are provided with one handshape at a time (i.e., 5, I, U) and they produce all of the signs that they can think of that use the given handshape in one minute. This task may be appropriate for deaf K-12 students. Both production tasks are quick to administer and easy to score through a simple count of accurate responses.

What we don’t know

Due to the heterogeneity of the deaf student population, we do not know how signers who are exposed to ASL later, such as when they begin formal education, should perform on assessments.


Educators can administer ASL assessments and compare the performance of individual students to themselves across time, such as administering the ASL-RST at the beginning and end of a school year, to monitor students’ ASL skills and development. Educators also can compare a student’s ASL performance to that of his or her peers through published studies that present results within age groups.

Posted on June 25, 2020 by
Jennifer S. Beal
Valdosta State University

Further reading