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American Annals of the Deaf

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Testing Deaf Students in an Age of Accountability

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Age of enrollment. With each year that passes in which students do not have maximum opportunities for language acquisition and learning, the task of educating these students becomes significantly more complicated. Students enroll at DSD for a variety of reasons and at various ages, depending on individual circumstances and needs. All too often, students simply “fail” their way into DSD after years of opportunity have been wasted. Although the school accountability formulas may address the movement of students from one school to another, it is impossible for any formula to account for multiple years of language deprivation and restricted access to world knowledge and incidental learning. For example, the scores on the Grade 3 DSTP test for a student who comes to DSD at the age of 8 can be distributed between the sending and receiving school so each school is accountable for the student’s results. But regardless of the equitable distribution of performance scores in this case, DSD remains accountable for the student’s performance in subsequent years and absorbs the lasting effect of the damage (often irreparable) done during the first 8 years when language access and learning were restricted. The educational effect multiplies exponentially as the age of enrollment increases.

Students with multiple disabilities. Although the special education system in the state of Delaware does not allow for dual classification of students, DSD has a significant number of students—approximately 58%—who have multiple disabilities. Nationally, as many as 48% of deaf students have additional disabilities (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2005). These multiple disabilities are often compounded by language acquisition deficits and related learning needs, which have a significant effect on instruction and assessment.

Equity issues. Assessment of deaf children at the Delaware School for the Deaf involves equity issues with respect to test development, test administration, and availability of appropriate testing accommodations. Test items can be biased against deaf students, particularly with phonics- or sound-based items. The administration of the DSTP and the availability of appropriate accommodations that address the unique language-learning needs of deaf students present another set of challenges. Appropriate accommodations that ensure equal access to the test and to the opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know without interference from their disability are difficult to administer and, in some cases, do not exist.


Test developers do not typically consider students with low-incidence disabilities when designing and developing tests, which often leads to inappropriate items surfacing on the test. The most cited examples among professionals in deaf education are phonics-based questions. Other items have an auditorily based context and are sometimes outside of the normal life experiences of deaf children. For example, a writing prompt that surfaced on a DSTP test asked students to describe “the sights and sounds of a typical day at the beach.” Other examples have included references to music. One could arguably say that these experiences should be at least familiar to deaf students through information gained in conversations and through printed material. However, sometimes, the simple mention of sound-based phenomena within an item can be enough to stymie a response from the student.

The lack of “world knowledge” exhibited by deaf students who have not had early access to language magnifies the challenges when these students must understand and respond to decontextualized information. In addition, certain test items present difficulties in terms of the manner in which they are written; some early efforts in Delaware focused on simplifying the language of test items to counter these difficulties. Fortunately, in Delaware, teachers are afforded the opportunity to be involved in the development of test items that measure progress toward the standards. A second opportunity to assess the effectiveness of particular test items before they are introduced on an actual test happens during field testing.

Every item on the DSTP has been reviewed by the DSTP Bias Review Committee. The function of this committee it to review each developed item for any bias in one or more of the following areas: sexism, sex stereotypes, racial or cultural stereotypes, blindness and visual impairment, deafness and hearing loss, special education, objectionable stereotypes, and historical distortions.

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