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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Assessing Deaf Adults: Critical Issues in Testing and Evaluation

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For many deaf and hard of hearing persons, English is not fully accessible and may not function as a true first or primary language. Yet tests for school graduation, university admissions, and licensure are embedded in the English language with all of its nuances, some of which will be explained below. Such tests thus evaluate the individual’s knowledge of English as much if not more than the content or skills that the tests purport to measure. However, the problem is not simply one of English-as-a-second-language (ESL); if it were, then the same accommodations afforded to a hearing non-native speaker of English would suffice for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. The following anecdote told by Gallaudet University professor of deaf studies, Ben Bahan, during a 1990 presentation at the Educational Testing Service and elsewhere illustrates how environmental access to English is markedly different for deaf and hard of hearing learners of English compared with hearing ESL learners. This is true regardless of whether the individual is a native American Sign Language (ASL) signer, a later learner of ASL, or someone who does not use sign language at all.

Two strangers, one deaf and the other a recent hearing immigrant, have just left an adult education center where they each attended English classes at different levels taught by different teachers. As it happens, the unit they both had just learned in their classes focused on the structure of “have been.” At the bus stop, the two strangers encounter two hearing, native speakers of English engaged in conversation while waiting for a bus. The immigrant is able to eavesdrop and is surprised to hear them using the very sentence structure he has just learned about in class.

(Speaker #1) “I saw John today, and he wanted to know what have you been doing since you two last went out.

(Speaker #2) “Oh, I hope you didn’t tell him I have been going bowling with Charlie.”

The hearing ESL learner is able to experience the newly learned language structure being used in a naturalistic context. In contrast, the deaf individual sees two people talking, and, by observing their proximity to one another, can surmise a shared level of intimacy, but has no idea what they are saying and certainly does not have the same opportunity to apply what he has been learning in class. Instead of benefiting from conversational application, the deaf individual’s environmental exposure to English is restricted to recognition of environmental printed words and phrases such as: bus stop, “Stop” (sign), Wal-Mart (across the street), and “Sale 30–50% off on red tag items.” (Benjamin J. Bahan, Personal Communication, August, 24, 2004.)


This book provides a digest of research relevant to this challenge, including work done by educational researchers, legal experts, test developers, and others. Considerable knowledge has been added to the field as a result of the research, which will be reported in a subsequent chapter. Yet, as so frequently happens with research other than medical research, a significant gap in time and awareness exists between the research results and any application to the changing of practices and related policies. Specifically, we can now identify some critical points about language-learning and access by deaf and hard of hearing persons. Yet this knowledge generally remains unknown to or unaccepted by test developers, policy makers, and those who test results to make decisions about this population. The challenge now is how to narrow that information gap such that relevant knowledge and research results can be applied to the benefit of equity in testing deaf and hard of hearing persons.

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