Education Opinion

Sheila Resseger: How Testing Impacts a School for the Deaf

By Anthony Cody — April 23, 2013 8 min read
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Guest post by Sheila Resseger.

I recently participated in the inspiring and informative webinar “How to Organize a Grassroots Group” put on by the Network for Public Education and the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. I am a retired teacher of the deaf, having retired from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf in the fall of 2011 profoundly dismayed by the unreasonable sanctions placed on the school by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), headed by Deborah Gist (Broad Superintendents Academy 2008).

During my 25 years as a teacher in the high school and middle school, I was at heart an English Language Arts teacher. I say at heart because I was originally hired to teach introductory Latin and Roman Civilization. Teaching deaf students a “dead” language may seem to some a non-starter, but Latin is actually a rich starting point to demystify aspects of English grammar and to build a broad and deep academic vocabulary. As I gained experience I became painfully aware of the many and varied difficulties many of my deaf students had with English print. What most people unfamiliar with early childhood deafness do not appreciate, is that a child deaf or severely hearing-impaired from birth or early infancy will not develop English as a native speaker, due to incomplete and distorted input, even if members of the family are native English speakers. This problem is compounded for students from immigrant families, the situation of many students at the RI School for the Deaf. Deaf students who arrive in this country at elementary or middle school age or later, often without a firm basis in their home language, face daunting difficulties in learning English and sign language, as well as English in print.

There have been many insightful discussions about the misuse and overuse of standardized testing in general education; the misuse and overuse of these tests is even more inappropriate and harmful for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. It should be self-evident that mass produced, mass administered English language and reading tests would not be sensitive enough to bring to light the serious difficulties with English grammar, vocabulary, and reading and writing that many students at a school for the deaf face. It should be self-evident, but it is not self-evident to those who crack the whip of standardized tests.

Before the current era of standardized testing, the RI School for the Deaf was fortunate to have on staff two exceptional educational linguists who were knowledgeable about the developmental needs of deaf students in regard to the mastery of English grammatical structures and English literacy. These two highly knowledgeable and articulate linguists developed, through a rigorous process, assessments of receptive and expressive English competence. They further developed and suggested valid reading evaluations for our students. Due to my background in English, language development, and linguistics, I was fortunate to be trained by them to administer these assessments. These assessments are given one-on-one and provide teachers and families with a thorough understanding of the student’s mastery (or lack thereof) of English structures such as embedded relative clauses and passive voice, structures that are essential for understanding complex English text (a stated goal of the Common Core boosters). Such assessments are time- and labor-intensive and generate a narrative report of many pages.

As pressure on the school increased, the meticulously developed diagnostic assessments--thorough, meaningful, and informative for designing lessons to meet students’ individual learning needs--went by the wayside. The school hit on a better idea--the (now infamous) NWEA MAP testing to measure growth! Administered on a computer, results available almost instantaneously! Never mind that the Language Usage and Math portions (not the Reading, obviously) are allowed to be interpreted into sign language for students, a laborious process. Picture this: even though classes are small, one teacher or test administer has to sit with each student (granted small groups of 4 - 6) and be available to interpret every item and answer choice. Once the answer is clicked, there’s no going back. How can this process possibly give any insights into why the student chose the answer, whether or not the answer was correct? But the graphs are beautiful (not to mention expensive). This is like trying to do brain surgery with a hammer and chisel.

The impact of the recent rampant misuse of standardized test scores on the status of the RI School for the Deaf has been severe. In March of 2011, RIDE labeled the school a Persistently Lowest Achieving school, bringing down on the small professional staff, families, students, and community all of the draconian “choices” foisted on “failing” schools by the federal DOE and RIDE. This was done largely on the basis of low scores on the NECAP state assessments, despite the fact that every child in the school has an IEP, some with multiple handicapping conditions, that RI has adopted a Deaf Children’s Bill of Rights which forbids the use of tests to assess deaf students if the tests have not been validated for the purpose used and normed on deaf students, and the fact that the numbers of students at each grade level tested (some as low as 4) were not sufficient for any statistical measures to be valid. The school community was traumatized by the possibility that the school would close, be turned over to a charter operator that most likely would not be knowledgeable about the needs of deaf and hard of hearing students, or that 50% of the staff would be terminated. The ultimate choice of the Transformation model was the least disruptive of the four, but still onerous. I retired shortly after this decision was made, but I hear from my former colleagues that they are stressed beyond the maximum by more and more unreasonable and counter-productive demands. There is still the spectre that the school will be closed if the students’ test scores do not significantly improve within several years. This is a misguided focus and is doing more harm than good.

The dilemma posed by No Child Left Behind must be considered here. Of course all students can learn and should be encouraged to achieve at high levels. Of course we want to challenge all students to reach their potential. (I’m not so sure about the making them globally competitive part.) Yet this has nothing whatever to do with the assertion that all students in all their variety need to demonstrate mastery on the same type of standardized assessment at the same grade level, particularly when most of the questions are multiple-choice and therefore require a type of linguistic mastery that eludes many deaf and other special needs students.
There are a myriad of factors that influence deaf students’ English language and literacy development and school achievement. These factors run the gamut of all the difficulties faced by hearing students in urban areas, many living in violence-prone neighborhoods, experiencing emotional distress, dealing with health issues, and living in non-English speaking families. For deaf students, encompassing all of these factors, is the unfortunate truth that in all too many cases they live in families where few or no family members can fluently communicate with them in sign language.

Certainly deaf students are capable and need to be challenged. Many of the school’s graduates in the past have gone on to complete post-secondary programs. But mass administered standardized tests are not the way to evaluate their learning. These tests should not be used to preclude their earning a high school diploma and continuing with their education, as may be the case in Rhode Island starting with the class of 2014. And this type of testing certainly is not the way to untangle the specific obstacles to deaf students’ academic advancement or to improve teaching. These obstacles should be diagnostically addressed in each student’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan), and are not forthcoming from grade level state assessment data points. The argument that Commissioner Gist has made, that the standardized tests are necessary to provide data for teachers to use when designing curricula to meet their students’ needs, is hollow.

This brings me to the concern I posed in the webinar. I have recently joined a group called the Coalition to Defend Public Education, in Providence, Rhode Island. The group is planning a forum on the Privatization of Public Education, High Stakes Testing, Charters, and More on April 27, 2013. Because of my many years of working with deaf students and adults, and the fact that many of my former colleagues are deaf, I am especially aware that when attending a meeting open to the public, deaf people have every right to equal communication access through sign language interpreters. A sticking point is finances, which I am hopeful can be overcome. Deaf people in our communities are parents and concerned citizens as well as teachers and other school professionals. Their needs should be addressed when planning outreach activities. They have at least as much at stake in what is happening to public education in general and to schools for the deaf in particular as the rest of us.

I would appreciate any thoughts on these issues from other people engaged in the difficult but vital work of preserving our public schools.

Sheila Resseger

Do you have any suggestions for how to provide translators for community events such as this? Have you seen the impact of high stakes tests on deaf students or others with special needs?

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