Global Educators Cohort Program - Teacher Education

Click here for Site Map
Jump to Main Content

Alternate Assessment Use with Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: An Analysis of Portfolio, Checklists, and Out-of-Level Formats

  • Dr. Stephanie Cawthon/The University of Texas at Austin, TX was available from 11/24/08 until 12/07/08 to answer questions and share ideas concerning her research and its implications for parents of children who are deaf/hard of hearing, their teachers and other professionals who work with them.
  • You are encouraged to read the research summary below and review the attached discussion.

The purpose of this paper is to present findings on alternate assessments for students who are deaf or hard of hearing (SDHH). Drawn from the results of the "Second National Survey of Assessments and Accommodations for Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing," this study investigated three alternate assessment formats: portfolio, checklists, and out-of-level testing. Analysis includes descriptive data of alternate assessment use across all three formats, qualitative analyses of teacher perspectives, and an exploratory logistic regression analysis on predictors of alternate assessment use. This exploratory analysis looks at predictors such as state policy, educational setting, grades served, language of instruction, and participant perspectives. Results indicate that predictors at the student, teacher, and system level may influence alternate assessment use for SDHH.


In this age of standardized assessment, with an emphasis on measuring student proficiency in an efficient and yet valid manner, there remains the important question of whether these assessments are appropriate for all students. Standardized assessments largely rely on paper and pencil tests, complete with bubble sheets and group administration of test items. Yet students with disabilities often face barriers to the content of the test when it is in a standardized format. Even with accommodations, there are times and places where a student not be able to demonstrate what they know using a standardized assessment. For these cases, an alternate assessment may be the best way to effectively measure student knowledge and skill.

This Study

The purpose of this research study was to look at the kinds of alternate assessment formats used with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. We focused on the most frequently used formats: portfolios, checklists, and out-of-level testing. Portfolios typically consist of class documents and other artifacts that can be used to evaluate student progress towards state content standards. This evaluation is often done by an outside party and includes a set of rubrics for different levels of quality. A checklist, on the other hand, is usually completed in house, and can be either a set of objectives or a rating scale of student performance. Finally, out-of-level testing consists of taking a standardized assessment for a grade level below the student’s chronological grade. This is typically considered when the student is working far below grade level. The SAT-HI is a good example of out-of-level testing procedures often used with students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

We looked at three main issues related to alternate assessment and students who are deaf or hard of hearing:

What formats did students use as part of 2004-05 state assessments?
2) What recommendations to teachers have about portfolios and out-of-level testing?
3) What student, teacher, or school characteristics led to greater use of alternate assessment formats?

Who Participated
The information for this study was gathered as part of the Second Annual Survey of Assessment and Accommodations for Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. This is an online, national survey of teachers who work with students across many different educational settings. A total of 314 teachers and other educational professionals who worked with over 7,500 students who are deaf or hard of hearing participated in this study. Of these 314 teachers, 80 (25%) worked at schools for the deaf, 119 (38%) worked at district or regional programs, and 115 (37%) worked in mainstreamed settings.

Formats Used

The table below gives an overview of the alternate assessment formats used by teachers of students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Overall, teachers used portfolios and checklists more than out-of-level testing. This breakdown also shows that schools for the deaf were most likely to use all of the formats.

Educational Setting
Alternate Assessment Format
Schools for the Deaf
District/Regional Programs
Mainstreamed Settings
37 (52%)*
31 (28%)
24 (24%)
43 (62%)*
31 (28%)
37 (36%)
21 (40%)*
20 (20%)
16 (18%)

Teachers gave recommendations about when it was best to use portfolio and out-of-level testing formats. For portfolios, the most common response was that portfolios are good at tracking progress. One teacher said: “Very helpful for all students. This is a good assessment that includes student work at various points throughout the year and includes their best work samples.” Another teacher said: “I feel that teachers have to have a clear set of guidelines to follow in selecting student work for a portfolio.”

For out-of-level testing, we saw a different pattern of responses. The most common response was that this format is not applicable. It is true that many states do not have this as an option. The second most common response was that the format allows teachers to measure the students’ academic level. For example, a teacher said: “I would recommend this accommodation when a student is being taught on a lower level and would achieve at a lower level.” On the other hand, there was a lot of frustration included in teacher responses. “Our state never figured out a good way to provide this kind of assessment. It never was very successful. They tried an online off-grade level assessment but it was never straightened out.”

Important Factors
The last part of our study looked at what contextual factors might lead to greater use of alternate assessment. Predictors that were associated with greater use of portfolios included having a school at a school for the deaf, having a teacher who saw portfolios as a good way to measure progress, and whether the teacher worked with students in Kindergarten, 7th, 8th, 11th, or 12th grade. What is interesting is that language of instruction and number of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in the program did not show significant results in this analysis.

We also ran this analysis for checklists and out-of-level testing. The only two factors significant for checklists were whether the teacher worked with students in 11th and in the school for the deaf. The out-of-level format was also more likely to be used if the teacher worked with students in 11th grade, but also if there was ASL or another signed language used in instruction. An additional factor for out-of-level was if the teacher felt the format was good for students who are below grade level.

Although the conclusions from these findings can only be tentative due to the exploratory nature of the study, there are some interesting issues that come from this discussion. First, there is the potential for portfolios to play a strong role in assessment of students who are deaf or hard of hearing. While this may already occur at the local level, there is potential for a broader use of this format for state assessments used for accountability (i.e. No Child Left Behind). This is particularly the case for students with multiple disabilities, such as learning disabilities or autism. In order for this format to be effective, however, teachers need significant levels of support. Support can be in the form of clear guidelines, adequate time for collection and scoring, and feedback about the process of alternate assessment, not just the student outcome.

The potential for checklists and out-of-level testing is less clear. There are fewer states that currently allow these formats. For checklists, teachers do not seem to tie their use to student or classroom characteristics. Out-of-level testing has a long history within the deaf education community, through the SAT-HI. The question that arises here is whether students who take out-of-level tests are being held to alternate standards than those who take grade level tests. It seems that this is the case. There were many dissenters to out-of-level testing, partially due to the limited policy context. However, there is something deeper at work here: Do alternate standards imply that we do not hold students who are deaf or hard of hearing to the same academic expectations as their peers? This is a harder question to wrestle through, not just for assessment, but for instruction as well.

Cawthon, S., & Wurtz, K. (in press). Alternate assessment use with students who are deaf or hard of hearing: An exploratory mixed methods analysis of predictors of portfolio, checklists, and out-of-level testing formats. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. Advance Access published on July 23, 2008. doi:10.1093/deafed/enn027