Interpreters as a Reasonable Accommodation for Testing

This image shows a pencil with an eraser on top lying on paper. The paper appears to be a question-answer sheet with 100 questions and each having options of A, B, C, D & E to highlight the correct option.

Deaf Students and English

Deaf students are highly diverse, with a broad range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds.  English and American Sign Language (ASL) are significantly different languages, each with its own syntax and grammar.  A student may have a high degree of fluency in ASL and be able to express their knowledge easily in that language, but not in English.

Is Providing an ASL Interpreter for Testing an Appropriate Accommodation?

It depends on the purpose of the test, assignment, or other activity; the type and complexity of the course content; and the student’s language proficiency and academic experience. For example, while it can be appropriate to offer ASL interpretation for a history test where the facts and dates are the knowledge that is being tested, it may not be appropriate for testing some language proficiency skills.

When and How Should ASL-Interpreted Tests be Provided?

Whenever a deaf student is being tested, an interpreter should be available to interpret instructions, and comments from the instructor, as well as questions posed by other students. Academic tests must accurately assess the student’s knowledge, rather than their English language skills or their test-taking skills. Sometimes sign language interpreters are the best way to ensure that a deaf student’s knowledge is being accurately conveyed.

Does the test measure content knowledge?

If the purpose is to measure content knowledge (such as the causes of World War II), it may be appropriate for the test to be interpreted. The main variable here is which language allows the student to best convey their knowledge and skill.

Does the test measure reading (decoding) skills? 

If the purpose is to measure skill in reading the English language in the narrowest sense (decoding), then an interpreter is likely not appropriate. The main variable here is the need to assess the student’s knowledge of English in this context. That said, there is often a gray area when there is a reading comprehension task that relies on how an individual analyzes and uses written text to arrive at an answer. In this case, the test provider might need to find creative solutions to make this kind of test question accessible without losing its validity.

Does the test measure written English expression?

If the purpose is to measure skills in written English expression, there should not be any interpretation offered of the student’s response. It is appropriate for the prompt to be provided to the student via an interpreter, but the student response should be in written English without an interpreter.

The goal should be to achieve equal access while ensuring that the administration of the test in another language (ASL) does not compromise the integrity of the exam.

Some Other Factors to Consider:

Use only interpreters with strong fluency in both ASL and English who are familiar with the test content and terminology, including acronyms. It is encouraged to utilize the same interpreter for the duration of the course and exams.

Use a check-and-balance system, such as team interpreting, to promote linguistic accuracy and interpreter neutrality.

Work with the interpreter to determine what content can be interpreted, and how it should be presented. Additionally, collaborate with the instructor and the student on the plan for accommodations to ensure that all parties (the interpreter, student, and instructor) are on the same page.

In the case of essay questions where English expression is not what is being measured, one option is for the student to video record live responses, and then this video can be voice interpreted when the response is being scored.

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