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English Testing for High School Students with Disabilities

Student wearing a hearing aid writing in a classroom with other students.
Student wearing a hearing aid writing in a classroom with other students.

Give students with disabilities a fair chance to demonstrate their English and communication skills.

Before they arrive in the U.S. for a life-changing cultural immersion experience, prospective high school exchange students from around the world are expected to demonstrate their level of English ability, usually by taking a standardized test. Whichever test you use to assess your applicants, learn how to adapt it to fairly and accurately measure the skills of students with disabilities.

English Proficiency Tests for Entering High School

Youth exchange organizations, including those that administer the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES), and other scholarship programs, commonly use one of the following tests to measure high school students’ English ability:

  • TOEFL Junior
  • ELTiS 
  • Pre-TOEFL 
  • SLEP

These tests sometimes require test takers to listen to audio recordings or to describe visual information verbally or in writing. These sections may be inaccessible to a test taker who has a hearing, vision, or learning disability. Contact the service that provides the tests to inquire about how to request disability-related accommodations for test takers. This may include providing disability documentation, and could require advance planning to allow review, approval, and arrangements to happen.

Providing Informal Accommodations

To ensure that test takers with disabilities have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their English language skills, some organizations provide accommodations informally, bypassing the formal process required for many standardized tests. Informal accommodations for test takers with disabilities may include:

  • An alternative format version of the test (e.g. enlarged print or Braille)
  • The assistance of a reader and writer/recorder of answers if an alternative format version of the test is not available
  • Additional testing time

For Test Takers with Vision Disabilities

Eliminate portions of the test that involve describing visual information such as diagrams and drawings. Instead, have the student answer an additional essay question using a computer (if she or he uses a computer) or in braille using a slate and stylus or braille typewriter as an alternative to describing a diagram or drawing.

The American Printing House for the Blind has an accessible testing department that produces guides on making tests accessible for students with vision disabilities (see Related Links).

For Test Takers with Hearing Disabilities or Who Use Sign Language

Eliminate listening comprehension portions of the test. If the student is non-verbal, eliminate speaking portions also. As an alternative method, ask additional questions that evaluate the applicant’s reading comprehension and writing skills.

Students who proficiently use sign language, either their native sign language or American Sign Language (ASL), typically learn, study and communicate using ASL during their exchange experience in the United States. To gauge these students’ ability to succeed as exchange students, English reading and writing proficiency may be less important than their maturity, flexibility, and motivation to learn ASL.

Even students who arrive in the U.S. with minimal ASL skills are often very successful at learning ASL quickly in an immersion environment. To evaluate the readiness of Deaf applicants to participate in an exchange program, many youth exchange organizations have partnered with Deaf organizations or Schools for the Deaf in the students’ home countries. Professionals and educators who are Deaf or have experience in Deaf education can provide insight on assessing Deaf applicants’ communication skills, academic strengths and weaknesses, personal qualities, and other criteria. A student’s mastery of their native sign language is a good indicator of how proficiently they can learn and pick up other sign languages quickly.

On the other hand, deaf students who do not use sign language, but who can read, write and/or speak English, have also succeeded in high school exchange programs in the United States. These students may require or benefit from other types of accommodations, such as note-takers, classrooms equipped with hearing loops, etc. Lip-reading is not considered an acceptable accommodation for most international students. Lip-reading is minimally effective, particularly with the barrier of a new language in a culture with different facial expressions and word formation.

Before Providing Accommodations

As you consider informal accommodations for test takers with disabilities, keep in mind that accommodations should:

  1. Be appropriate and meet the individual needs of the student test taker
  2. Be used in a fair manner for all students
  3. Not be provided in assessment situations that are specifically for diagnosing a student’s disability

Read more in Basic Considerations in Using Testing Accommodations.

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