O’Neill, R., Cameron, A., Burns, E., & Quinn, G. (2020). Exploring alternative assessments for signing deaf candidates . Psychology in the Schools , 57 (3), 344–361. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.22326

Journal Article

O’Neill, R., Cameron, A., Burns, E., & Quinn, G. (2020). Exploring alternative assessments for signing deaf candidates. Psychology in the Schools, 57(3), 344–361. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.22326


Educator survey; Hearing impairment (including deafness); High school; International (non-U.S.); No age; No disability; Science; Signed administration; Signed response; Student survey





British Sign Language (BSL) was investigated—as used by credentialed interpreters, in accordance with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)—in the context of academic examinations in secondary schools in Scotland. Two related studies were reported; Study A addressed face-to-face provision of BSL by interpreters and signed responses by examinees, and Study B included an analysis of the feasibility of electronic exams with BSL presented in embedded recorded video clips.


[Study A] Thirty-three (33) people participated, including: (a) 20 test administrators who served as sign interpreters during national examinations responded to a questionnaire; (b) eight teachers, sign interpreters, and support workers who had administered exams for students with deafness/hearing impairments in the past year participated in interviews; (c) five students who are deaf/hard of hearing (ages 16–17) who had recently taken science exams were interviewed. [Study B] Twenty-nine (29) people participated, including (a) 10 students from four schools in the feasibility study, (b) eight educators (of Deaf students) who evaluated examination materials, and (c) 11 teachers (of Deaf students) who observed the administration of practice exams during this piloting stage.

Dependent Variable

[Study A] A teacher survey (created by the researchers) with 24 items was completed by school staff who sign-administered the national science exams. The survey included questions about their experiences during the exam with Deaf students, such as their observations of whether students signed responses or only wanted the questions signed to them, forms of signing used, and use of fingerspelling. The questionnaire also asked whether sign administrators were familiar with the signs for science vocabulary on the exam, about their confidence in interpreting, their BSL levels, and respondents' views of the current examination system for these students. [Study B] Pilot stage versions of science tests over recent classroom content for student participants were administered, with students viewing the embedded BSL videos and typing their item responses in English; then students were surveyed with questions about their testing experience, presented in BSL, to which they responded in BSL, signed to a digital recording tool. The questions sought students' comparison of their previous experiences of testing presented by a BSL interpreter and the current digital version with embedded video clips. An interview protocol in spoken English was used with educators reviewing the exam materials and teachers observing the pilot versions of science exams.


[Study A] Eight themes emerged from the qualitative information reported in surveys and interviews; BSL communication practices were emphasized in this summary. Interpreters indicated that, in response to test-takers requesting repetition of test item, they typically signed the same question again; some indicated that they sought to improve upon how the question was asked, might make sure to fix mistakes they might have made, at least one noted that they simplified the phrasing if asked for repetition more than once, and another tried to contextualize the question. When asked about signing technical terms, 11 of 15 respondents indicated that they fingerspelled them in an effort not to provide additional information that some technical signs communicated. This practice fits with the guidance in England but not in Scotland. Students reported that fingerspelling can present problems when some interpreters relay fingerspelling in ways unfamiliar to students. Interpreter preparation time with specific assessments has typically permitted one hour, and interpreters noted that some assessments require more preparation; the 2016 revision of guidance permits more preparation time by special request. A majority of teacher respondents and student participants expressed that the BSL glossary was very useful and commonly used; some reported that there were internet problems and suggested DVD format, and others indicated that more technical terms were needed in the glossary. The researchers discussed the expectation that interpreters had appropriate signing skills and content knowledge, and also concerns about interpreters' varied decisions during test administration that might not be consistent with guidelines. [Study B] Nine of the 10 students expressed positive perceptions on the digital assessment version, and one student (who also had autism) indicated preferring their teacher's signing. Students indicated increased comfort with replaying video clips, rather than having to ask in-person for repetitions. Educators indicated enthusiasm regarding the digital version, noting that the BSL signing quality was high, and can ensure test-takers' understanding. A concern was noted—that possibly students would replay video clips much more often—yet observation of 10 students in pilot test indicated that nine completed the assessment within the 25% additional time typically provided. Implications and recommendations for further development of digital assessments in BSL and permitting student assessment responses in BSL to be captured in video.