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October 11, 2004

Many deaf students failing English assessment tests

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger, MS - Oct 11, 2004

Differences between signed, written language keep some from diplomas

By Shelia Hardwell Byrd
The Associated Press

For all of Lynn Lane's 17 years, she has never once heard a spoken word. And more importantly, she has never heard the way words fit together to form the English language.

Deaf students like Lane who have relied their entire lives on the shorthand of sign language to communicate often have a tough time catching on to the subtleties of the written word, which can be as hard to pick up as a second language.

Yet in Mississippi and other parts of the nation, deaf students are required to pass the same assessment tests as their hearing counterparts to receive a high school diploma. Though they can usually pass subjects like history or algebra, English is the roadblock that routinely delays or prohibits their graduation.

Educators at the Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf say no deaf student has ever passed the English assessment test on the first try. The overall first-try pass rate for such students is 83.1 percent.

"These tests are grossly unfair to deaf students. Hearing children are exposed to so much English language from birth," said Jean Andrews, director of graduate programs in deaf studies/deaf education at Lamar University in Texas.

Sign language is visual, and isn't always translated word for word into English.

For instance, you wouldn't sign the phrase "raining cats and dogs" verbatim. Instead, the phrase would be signed "raining heavily." And if a student never heard the phrase, they may not know what it means.

Historically, deaf students have had a hard time taking standardized achievement tests, particularly in reading, said Dr. Ross Mitchell, a research scientist at Gallaudet Research Institute at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

The institute conducts a national study of the performance of deaf and hard-of-hearing students on standardized tests. Many do not demonstrate high-school level reading ability, Mitchell said.

"From the standpoint of measurement, there are a lot of questions about whether the tests that states have adopted are appropriate for special populations," Mitchell said.

The Mississippi school is appealing to state officials to at least allow deaf students to use a thesaurus, an accommodation made for non-English speaking students, such as Hispanics and Vietnamese.

That way, if a deaf student sees a word for which there is no sign, such as "gorgeous," they could refer to the thesaurus and find "beautiful," a word they might recognize, said Dana Campbell, director of technology and public relations at the deaf school.

Lane excels in most subjects. She earned five A's and a B (in English) on her last progress report. She has passed nearly all the assessment tests required to graduate in May, but she has yet to pass the vocabulary portion of the English test. She has taken the test at least four times.

"When I read the complete sentence, sometimes I might have overlooked some kind of idiom or figurative language I don't understand," Lane said through an interpreter. "I really struggle with that and I have to make up an answer."

Lane said she could ace the test if an interpreter was allowed to "bridge" or translate the vocabulary into sign language.

The Mississippi Department of Education allows interpreters to translate portions of all tests except the vocabulary and reading.

Kris Kasse, director of student assessment for the state public school system, said the tests are designed to show mastery, and too many accommodations could thwart the intent.

"If we're giving a math test in the third grade, and I get you a multiplication table, you're not showing that you know how to multiply. It's the same issue," Kasse said.

Students can take the English test up to 10 times. They can remain at the deaf school until they are 21. In neighboring Alabama, deaf students must pass the Alabama High School Graduation Exam to receive a diploma. The students at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega are allowed unlimited retakes up to the age of 21, said Lynne Hanner, the school's director of institutional advancement.

They also struggle with English, Hanner said. As of June, only two of the 16 deaf seniors had received high school diplomas. Two others returned to the school this summer to earn the degrees.

At the Mississippi school, its six seniors last spring received completion certificates, not diplomas. The reading challenge discourages some from seeking a diploma, school officials say.

Hanner said deaf educators walk a fine line. They want the students to have a fair playing field without depending on a crutch.

"They have to believe in themselves," Hanner said. "Overcoming language barriers, that's the challenge."

Fast fact

More than two-thirds of deaf or hard-of-hearing 18-year-olds and three-fourths of 17-year-olds nationally were reading below the high school level.

Source: Ross Mitchell, researcher at Gallaudet Research Institute

Copyright © 2004, The Clarion-Ledger.