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  • Assessing Children’s Proficiency in Natural Signed Languages
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As language researchers develop a better understanding of signed language structure and acquisition processes, educators and language specialists are eager to connect that research to the practical and urgent need for reliable measures that assess deaf children’s development and use of natural signed language. Parents also need an evaluation of the initial level of their child’s signed language proficiency and acquisition process. Assessments can help educators or professionals identify D/deaf children who are having problems developing signed language proficiency.

There are several types of assessments for signed language proficiency. These include observation, language elicitation, and proficiency interview. Though there are some formal assessments which can be used in the classroom, they are still somewhat lacking in terms of verified practicality, reliability, and validity. Because of this, many teachers use their own observations. This informal method of assessment makes it difficult to document improvement and compare the student to expected milestones. 

Formal assessments are either criterion referenced or norm referenced. The first provides a list of structures, vocabulary, or other aspects of language that the assessor is looking for in the child's language use. If the child produces that structure, the item is checked off. The score is often reported descriptively, as in "skill is emergent," or as a percentage of items which were present. Norm referenced assessments compare the student with a group of similar age. Norm referenced sing language tests are challenging because of the diversity of deaf students. Determining who should be a part of the normative group is a struggle, since may children have hearing parts and delayed language access and development. In addition, the relatively small number of deaf children makes it challenging to administer the assessment enough times to have a normative group. 

There are approximately a dozen tests which have been used to assess signed language proficiency in children. Any discussion of a child's language proficiency should discuss multiple methods and multiple assessments, should use an authentic language sample, and should be reliable and valid. 

Specific American Sign Language Assessment Tools:

Test Battery for ASL Morphology and Syntax

This test takes about two hours to administer, 15 hours to analyze and score. It can be used with children to assess their knowledge and use of morphology and syntax. It has been used with >100 signers ages 3-75. There is currently no available description of its psychometric properties.

American Sign Language Proficiency Assessment

This assessment uses a trained native or near native signer to collect three, ten-minute language samples. The first is an adult speaking with the child, the second is the child speaking with another child, and the third is the child retelling a story. A trained assessor examines the video and checks off twenty-three morphological and syntactic structures when they are seen.  Validity was based on the responses of four native signers. The test was administered to ensure the 23 structures could be elicited, and then was administered to 80 deaf children ages 6-12 from various language backgrounds. From this, low, moderate, and high proficiency statistical cutoff points were determined. The child's linguistic background strongly predicted his or her proficiency. The 80 children were also assessed using subtests from Test Battery for ASL Morphology and Syntax, and the result are currently undergoing analysis for concurrent validity. In the future, there are plans to develop assessor training, assess a larger normative sample, and verify the cutoff points for proficiency groups. 

Center for ASL Literacy ASL Assessment Checklist 

This checklist was developed at Gallaudet. It uses videotaped observations, reviewed by trained assessor, to assess for the presence of grammatical and pragmatic features. It is interested in formational, morphological, and syntactic structures, as well as perspective and creative use of ASL. It has been used mostly with adults. No evidence has been published on reliability or validity. 

Test of ASL

This test was developed with 155 deaf students ages 8-15. It measures production and comprehension of classifiers, grammatical structures, signed narratives, time, and space. Feedback has been provided by deaf ASL linguists; psychometric properties have not yet been published. This assessment tool have been translated into Catalan Sign Language, French Sign Language, and Swedish Sign Language. 

The ASL Communicative Development Inventory

This tool was adapted from the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (which has also been adapted into 8 other spoken languages). Parents act as the observer, checking off signs their child uses from a list of 537 sign glosses. The tool requires no special training to administer, but the assessor needs extensive knowledge of the child's language use. During adaptation, culturally and linguistically inappropriate items (i.e. animal sounds) were deleted. The original MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory tests production, comprehension, and grammar. The ASL Communicative Development Inventory tests only production. This is because an ASL grammar check sheet would be complex for parents to see. The assessment tool is used for children ages 8-35 months. It has been used for 69 deaf children of deaf parents. Due to this small sample size, age based norms have not yet been identified. Test-retest reliability has been confirmed, as well has some assessor reliability - when a videotaped home visit is coded, outside assessors and parents produce the same results for that time period. 

American Sign Language Assessment Instruments

This assessment tool contains a collection of production and comprehension tasks that look for skills in metalinguistics, morphology, syntax, semantics, and narrative abilities. It has been administered to more than 200 deaf children ages 4-16, including native and non-native signers. It has been shown to have internal consistency, as well as predictive validity - scores tend to correlate with the SAT-HI. Age related norms have not yet been determined. 

American Sign Language Vocabulary Test

This receptive vocabulary test was modeled after Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. The assessor presents a sign, and the child chooses what they believe is the sign's meaning from pictures. It was tested on a small group of deaf children, revised, and now contains 61 items. It has since been administered to 97 children ages 3 years, 11 months to 8 years. Early psychometric reports show differences between deaf children of deaf parents versus hearing parents. More psychometric investigation is underway. It is unknown if vocabulary is a predictor of overall proficiency in signed languages.

Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI)

This tool uses a conversational approach to assess receptive and expressive skills via one on one conversations. The interview is video recorded, and the videotape is reviewed by two or three assessors. The assessors look at the areas of sign production, grammar, vocabulary, and comprehension. Developers are gathering data on assessor reliability. One study correlates student responses of communication ease with instructors with the instructor's SCPI score. It can be used with deaf children ages 7-14 in an adapted form; however, no psychometric analysis has been completes on its use with deaf children.

American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI)

The ASLPI was developed in California. It has a similar set up to the SCPI. No data has been published regarding test development or psychometric data. The ASLPI has not been used with children.

Singleton, J. L., & Supalla, S. J. (2003). Assessing children's proficiency in natural signed languages. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (eds.), Deaf Studies, Language, and Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc. 289-302.

Marschak, M. & Spencer, P.E. eds (2003). Assessing Children’s Proficiency in Natural Signed Languages. In Deaf Studies, Language, and Education. Oxford University Press Inc. New York, NY: 289-302 

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