Why Test Accommodations Are Important for Deaf Students

Test accommodations are changes in testing materials or procedures that improve access without changing what is measured by the test. Test accommodations are an important part of ensuring test equity and access for deaf students. Accommodations are unique for each student because deaf students have different language, communication, and cultural backgrounds, and may also have additional disabilities. This summary explains why deaf students have the right to accommodations when taking tests, and options that may improve access.

Accessible Testing Is Important

Testing is a common practice both in schools and in the workforce, and full access to testing experiences is important. Some technical schools, community colleges, and universities require admission or placement tests before enrollment. Additionally, some careers require a license or certification that includes passing a test.

Deaf Students Have Diverse Language Experiences

Deaf students are a highly diverse population with a broad range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. English is the language of instruction in most school settings, including testing. Here are some issues to consider regarding access to testing for deaf students.

Most deaf people have hearing parents, and most deaf children’s families do not use sign language. Lack of a shared language between deaf children and their families can lead to delays in development in general, and language specifically.

(This is one way in which deaf students’ needs are different from those of hearing ESL/ELL students, who have complete access to their first language.)

Deaf children enter school with a variety of English skill levels.

Deaf children may also be raised in households where neither ASL nor English is the first language, making English their third or even fourth language.

English may be a deaf student’s second language and ASL their first language, especially when they are raised by parents who sign.

When a deaf student’s access to a classroom is via accommodations like interpreters, they often do not receive all of the information that their hearing peers receive. This leads to varied instruction quality and understanding, and reduced access to learning. Several factors contribute to these gaps in access, including:

  • Teachers might not pause long enough between references to visual information, meaning that deaf students can’t see both the visual information and the visual accommodation like speech-to-text or interpreters.
  • Teachers might need additional training in how to best work with interpreters in different classroom settings.
  • Interpreters and speech-to-text providers typically cover direct instruction by instructors but do not always capture all the conversation that occurs inside and outside a classroom setting.
  • An interpreter might not be using the language that the student prefers (for example, the student might use and prefer ASL, while the interpreter is using Signed Exact English).

Test accommodations play a critical role in test equity for deaf students.

Tests Are Not Always Accessible

Standardized tests are usually not designed with deaf students in mind. Each of the following factors may make test-taking tasks more difficult for deaf students.

Emerging readers may need to reread directions and items to understand the task. Students whose primary language is ASL may have to translate concepts to ASL and back again when working through difficult tasks.

Tests sometimes contain vocabulary or concepts that are not a part of classroom instruction. Deaf students do not always have equal access to the kind of “common knowledge” that hearing students draw upon to understand the context of test items.

Test items often use language in ways that are different from what students experience in home and school environments. For example, test response options such as multiple choice, “select all that apply,” and true or false statements are specific to testing. Deaf students may be at a disadvantage in terms of familiarity with the specific language structures used in many testing formats.

Test Accommodations Reduce Barriers

Accommodations are an important consideration for assessment because tests may not be designed in a way that allows deaf students to fully display their knowledge and skills. Federal laws require that public schools, postsecondary institutions and employers provide reasonable accommodations. Test accommodations are designed to reduce barriers presented by tests that may not accurately measure the deaf student’s knowledge and skills. For example, in a test that includes voiced instructions, deaf students may be provided captioned instructions and/ or sign language interpretation, as well as extra time for reading and understanding the text. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Tailor accommodations to students’ needs and preferences. 
  • The accommodations that are used for testing should be similar to the accommodations used during classroom instruction. 
  • Provide opportunities for the student to practice with whatever accommodations are being used for the assessment before the day of the test.
  • Ensure that requested accommodations do not interfere with what is being measured. Accommodations that are allowed in one section of a test may not be allowed in another.
  • Educate and empower deaf students to understand and explain their accommodation needs. Provide opportunities for deaf test-takers to show how they understand test content (with and without accommodations) to better provide evidence for accommodations decisions.
  • Hire and train professional interpreters who have experience working with education, testing, and the content area.

Examples of Test Accommodations for Deaf Students

Assistive Listening Devices

Allows the listener to tune directly into a speaker’s voice (for example, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and FM systems). This is particularly important for any directions that are provided via voice only.

Captioned Media

Provides text representation of audio content on videos, audio recordings, and more. This is important for items where students need to make use of information from that media content in their test responses.

Extended Time

An accommodation for tests that normally have time limits. Extended time is a common approach for students who need to read or reread test items, watch sign language videos, or use other accommodations that are provided.

Individual Administration

Allows students to take a test in a different environment than other students. This accommodation can reduce distractions, allows students to go at their own pace, and may be useful when students need to take breaks or have other scheduling-related accommodations.


Record or write responses to test questions for students who may speak or sign their answers. For example, this accommodation might be needed when a student has mobility issues that make writing difficult or impossible, but speech-to-text software is also not an appropriate fit.

Glossaries or Dictionaries

Provide support in understanding the meaning of words in test items. A dictionary provides general definitions of words, and a glossary provides definitions and examples with context for the test. Using a glossary or dictionary may help some deaf students understand important English words or phrases that are not related to what is being measured (it would not be appropriate to use a dictionary or glossary when testing English vocabulary).

Frequent Breaks

Can include stopping between sections or providing longer breaks between test administrations. Because test-taking can be tiring for many students, but especially taxing for students taking a test over a longer period of time, in an emerging language, or via visual modalities, frequent breaks can help provide the rest that is needed for the student to accurately convey their knowledge.

Sign Language Interpreters

Part or all of the test can be translated into sign language. Many translations of standardized assessments are delivered as videos embedded in the online delivery format. Providing an ASL translation may allow ASL users to fully demonstrate what they know. Translations should not lead or cue students to a particular response or give an unfair advantage or disadvantage to either English versions or ASL versions.

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