When students with hearing impairments seek accommodations on standardized tests such as those needed to enter graduate school or gain professional licensure, they sometimes find their requests questioned or even denied. As a disability services provider, you’re in a good position to help students understand why that is, and guide them in requesting accommodations that make sense and have a good likelihood of being granted to ensure they have an equal opportunity to succeed in these critical exams.
That’s according to Ruth C. Loew, the assistant director of ETS’s Office of Disability Policy; and John A. Hosterman, the director of global accessibility for Pearson VUE and the GED Testing Service.
While this may sound overly basic, a common issue Loew and Hosterman encounter is a lack of understanding among students as to what constitutes an accommodation.
“Accommodations enhance access to a test. They change how something is assessed,” Hosterman explained. “On the other hand, modifications change what is being assessed.”
In other words, accommodations change the input or output, whereas modifications change the content. For example, when captioning is provided, students receive the same information, just in a different way, so this is an accommodation. Now, let’s consider an essay question. If the essay format is meant to assess writing skills, allowing a student to instead answer a multiple-choice question would be a modification and a prohibited fundamental alteration.
Hence, be sure that students aren’t seeking modifications, because they’ll likely find their requests are denied. But receiving an accommodation is no guarantee that students will do well on a test, or even that they will finish it. Make sure they understand that to promote proper preparation.
Address assumptions and generalizations
Another part of the problem is that people — including parents and students themselves — sometimes make false assumptions about the accommodation needs of deaf and/or hard of hearing students on standardized tests, Loew said. And those assumptions can hurt students.
Some common assumptions include that students who are deaf or hard of hearing will need accommodations for all tasks and in all settings; that they are always poor readers; that they generally process information more slowly than their hearing peers and thus need extra time; or that they will need an interpreter for all tasks and in all settings, she said.
But every student is different, even if their hearing impairments are equal in severity, she said. One student who is deaf may be able to read lips and respond clearly, while another may lack both abilities altogether. Accommodation requests should be clearly tied to students’ specific limitations and not to assumptions or generalizations.
For example, a student with a hearing impairment may very well have another disability that hinders his ability to process information at the same speed as his hearing peers, in which case extra time to take a test may be necessary. But there’s nothing about being deaf or hard of hearing alone that would cause this impairment. So, while deaf or hard of hearing students may desire extra time to read questions on an exam, the accommodation request will likely be unsupported by documentation and approving it won’t make sense to agency evaluators.
Explain factors that determine reasonableness
While ensuring that requests are tied to documented impairments is critical, there are various other factors students should consider to make sure their accommodation requests are reasonable. One of those has to do with context.
“The accommodation must fit the setting,” Loew explained.
An accommodation that may be appropriate in the classroom may not always be appropriate on a standardized test. For example, it may make sense to accommodate a student in class by having an instructor provide clarification or check for understanding of concepts being taught or discussed. In some situations, it may even make sense to allow students to use notes for quizzes and exams or deliver an answer to an essay exam orally in the classroom setting. But because of the very nature of standardized tests, those types of requests simply cannot be allowed.
“While we are very much in favor of testing equity, we also have a responsibility to ensure that the test and test scores are meaningful,” Loew said.
Get students to consider what the test is intended to measure in determining what accommodations to request. And remind them that accommodations can’t fundamentally alter the test. For instance, if a standardized math test is meant to assess computational skills, the use of a calculator would not be appropriate.
Likewise, if a test with a practical skills component, such as a nursing licensure exam, is meant to measure whether a test-taker can perform the tasks required of individuals in that profession, a request to have a task waived will not go over well. On the other hand, testing agencies will consider — and very often grant — accommodation requests that allow students to perform tasks differently.
For example, someone taking a nursing licensure exam could ask to use a digital stethoscope instead of a traditional one because either way, they are still showing that they know how to assess a patient’s heartbeat.
“Show us you can accomplish required tasks in different ways. That’s something we’re very open to,” Hosterman said.
Clarify interpreting role
Students who use sign-language interpreters may feel entitled to bring a sign-language interpreter to a testing site with them. And often, that’s an easily granted accommodation. However, there are some limitations in how students can use interpreters.
“Generally, interpreters are more appropriate as an instructional accommodation than as a testing accommodation,” Loew said.
While interpreters are typically allowed to help students with check-in procedures and other communication with testing center staff, they are usually not allowed to interpret written test instructions or questions. There are several reasons for that.
For one, individual interpreters may inadvertently change the meaning of a text question, give away an answer, or change the difficulty of a question. Plus, it just doesn’t make sense to provide on-the-fly sign-language interpreting when on-the-fly translation into any oral language isn’t permitted for hearing students who feel more comfortable communicating in an language other than English, Loew pointed out.
Spell out documentation requirements
Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may feel that they don’t need to provide documentation of their impairments to receive accommodations on standardized tests because their condition is obvious and maybe lifelong. But while disability services providers who provide these students with accommodations in the college setting get to interact with students and see how their impairments affect them, that’s not the case for testing agency evaluators, noted Loew and Hosterman. That’s why they still need to see documentation, namely:
- Evidence of a disability. Documentation should provide evidence of the disability, and can consist of an audiogram or audiometric report or a simple letter from a doctor or audiologist.
- History and relevant background information. That could include a history of how an accommodation has helped a student in various past settings; an explanation of comorbid conditions or other extenuating circumstances; information about a student’s reading and writing skills if he claims these are impaired; and information about the age of onset of the hearing loss and history of amplification usage.
- Rationale for the requested accommodations. This may take the form of a short note that addresses things such as whether listening and/or speaking assistance is needed in checking in to a testing site; whether help is needed communicating with a proctor during the test; compatibility issues between a student’s hearing aid or cochlear implant and headphones used for listening portions of the test; whether background noise will be an issue and why; and how needs for assistive technology such as FM loops, amplified stethoscopes, or digital readouts of blood pressure monitors address documented limitations. “We’re not looking for chapter and verse here; just a couple of short sentences are OK,” Hosterman said.
While students don’t need to submit everything on the list above, the more documentation they can provide, the better.
“We don’t want to haggle with anyone over accommodations, but we need to know what’s appropriate,” Hosterman said. “And the more information we have, the easier it will be for us to approve the accommodations that students need.”
For more information, you may contact Ruth C. Loew at firstname.lastname@example.org or John A. Hosterman at email@example.com.