Measure What Matters, and Create Accountability for Equity


Assessment Equity for Deaf Students: The Nexus between Disability and English Language Learners, Stephanie Cawthon and Jennifer Higgins

Presentation Summary: Designing accessible assessments for deaf students involves considerations of both accessibility of tests and language-learning experiences of deaf students. This presentation will address decisions on accommodations and language translations of assessments. The presenters will share perspectives on test accessibility for deaf students and sample cases of complex intersections of accessible assessment and accountability.


Stephanie W. Cawthon, PhD

Caucasian woman with brown shoulder length hair and pink shirt with black blazer


Dr. Stephanie Cawthon’s mission is to translate research into practices that help millions of deaf Americans succeed after high school—at work, in training programs, or at a college or university.

Her 29-year career in teaching and research is dedicated to studying the different ways deaf people achieve educational success, how it leads to life satisfaction, and what schools, governments, and parents can do to ensure that students can thrive.

Dr. Cawthon was recently appointed the first deaf editor of Perspectives on Deafness, an Oxford University Press international book series on the leading research and practices with deaf people. She is a tenured professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology, with a courtesy appointment in Special Education.

An internationally-renowned expert who is in high demand as a speaker and collaborator, Dr. Cawthon’s research examines the multiple factors that affect how deaf people succeed after high school, investigates issues of equity and access in education, explores accommodations and accessible learning environments, and challenges systemic standards that may be holding some students back. Her research has been funded by nearly $25 million in federal and other grants.

She literally wrote the book on the topic. Dr. Cawthon co-authored Shifting the Dialog, Shifting the Culture: Pathways to Successful Postsecondary Outcomes for Deaf Individuals with NDC Director Carrie Lou Garberoglio, PhD, a publication that a leading journal called “an important contribution to the field.” They also co-authored Research in Deaf Education: Contexts, Challenges and Considerations in 2017.

Her first book, Accountability-Based Reforms: The Impact of Deaf or Hard of Hearing Students, won the Exceptional Book of the Year Award in 2012 from Exceptionality Education International.

Raised oral in mainstream schools, Dr. Cawthon’s own transition to college was challenging. She attempted the accommodations strategies she used in high school, then quickly realized they were inadequate in a large university setting. She went on to earn her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Stanford University, where her initial line of research in the language development in deaf children launched her career. Dr. Cawthon received her doctorate in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2002, where she became a systems thinker focused on educational access, equity, and attainment.

Current Affiliations and Appointments 

  • Professor, Department of Educational Psychology | University of Texas at Austin

  • Board of Directors and Director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute | Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin 

  • Provost’s Teaching Fellow Emeritus | University of Texas at Austin 

  • Director of Research and Evaluation | Drama for Schools 

  • Principal Reviewer | Journal of Educational Psychology

  • Editorial Board Member | Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability; Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals

  • Member | Student with Disabilities Assessment Advisory Task Force for the Council of Chief State School Officers; Technical Advisory Committee for the National Center on Educational Outcomes; Technical Advisory Committee for ELPA21 Assessment Consortium and CAAELP Assessment Consortium at UCLA; Advisory Committee of Assessment of English Language Learners for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Jen Higgins

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Jen Higgins has 15 years of experience managing research and development programs that focus on accessibility. Over this time, she has led the coordination of three Enhanced Assessment Grant (EAG) projects and has directed all activities for a fourth, which focused on research and development of guidelines for American Sign Language (ASL) and audio representation of K-12 assessment content. At NDC, Jen coordinates the process of identifying, studying, and disseminating practices at sites across the country that support positive outcomes for deaf individuals. Jen has published more than one dozen articles and has co-authored one book on high-stakes testing. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and a Master’s Degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College.