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American Annals of the Deaf

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Accountability-Based Reforms: The Impact on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
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placements more than tripled in the last decade. This shift is partly a result of reduction in the number of stand-alone schools or merging of program resources (Asmar, 2006; Blackorby & Knokey, 2006; Silverman, 2006). However, in spite of these long-term shifts, placement trends have stabilized over the last few years, particularly for students with severe or profound hearing losses (Blackorby & Knokey, 2006; Gallaudet Research Institute, 2001, 2005, 2008). Children of Deaf adults, those with significant hearing losses, and those with multiple disabilities are more likely to enroll in schools for the deaf than students with more moderate losses or those who have hearing parents. Schools for the deaf may serve fewer students than in the past overall, but they still play a critical role in the education of students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

One area not evident in the overall graphs is the change in the age range of students served in the different educational settings. In the past, students at schools for the deaf would attend from their early elementary through high school years. More recent trends are for students to remain in a local elementary school at a regional program or in a regular education school for the elementary years. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, particularly those who are Deaf, then shift to a school for the deaf in the secondary grades (Cawthon & the Online Research Lab, 2006; personal communication, Diana Poeppelmeyer, May 14, 2009). At schools for the deaf, this shift places a greater emphasis on the educational needs of secondary students. In the context of academic outcomes for accountability reform, the focus at schools for the deaf may therefore shift to academic content in upper grades and on high school completion (Lang, 2002).

Educational setting has implications for accountability in two ways: measurement and transparency. First, accountability explicitly measures student outcomes in public education. Depending on how the reform is structured, this measurement could focus on individual students, teachers, schools, districts, or states. The organizational unit (e.g., school or program) responsible for educating students therefore is relevant to the concept of measuring and “holding accountable” the education system for student achievement. In current accountability reforms, schools are the most local organizational unit evaluated for student progress. One challenge in the shifts in school enrollment for students who are deaf or hard of hearing is that it is difficult for schools to reliably measure how their students fare over time. This difficulty is particularly true if the demographic makeup of the study body changes (e.g., influx of secondary students at schools for the deaf ) from year to year. Thus, accountability reform can be a tool for schools or programs to use in their own self-assessment, but it must take into consideration the fact that different student cohorts arrive each year. Chapter 5 will discuss in further detail how schools for the deaf, district programs for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and regular education programs are differentially affected by the current structure of accountability reforms.

On the flip side of this discussion of educational setting and accountability reform is the level of transparency provided in the structure of the law. If the “unit of responsibility” is broad enough that student performance is calculated over a large group, we lose information about how smaller groups are served by that institution. It is easy to lose specific information about how low-incidence groups fare in large-scale reforms, and students who are deaf or hard of hearing in accountability reforms are no exception. The majority of students who are deaf or hard of hearing are in regular education programs that have only a handful of students with hearing loss in the school or district. In some cases, the deaf or hard of hearing “group” for a school is a single student. When report cards are given to schools, especially regular education schools that may serve only one or a few students who are deaf or hard of hearing, the group progress of students who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot be tracked. In other words, if a student who is deaf or hard of hearing is in a regular education school, it is unlikely that we would ever know how well that student performed on state assessments. A state could aggregate results for all individual students who are deaf or hard of hearing across the state, a recommendation I strongly support, but it is challenging to report this information from a single school or district without violating federal privacy laws and confidentiality of student information. The current focus on overall population summaries (e.g., all students with disabilities) thus limits what we know about the impact of changes made at the local level (e.g., instruction to students who are deaf or hard of hearing at a local program).

Academic Outcomes for Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Accountability reform focuses almost exclusively on student performance on standardized assessments as a measure of successful education (Chapter 4 discusses testing issues in greater detail). One of the underlying challenges in deaf education is the history of poor performance on large-scale standardized tests. Test performance on these tests is, on average, lower for deaf students than for hearing students, although performance relative to hearing peers varies by domain (Brasel & Quigley, 1977; Harris & Bamford, 2001; Mutua & Elhoweris, 2002; Ronnberg, 2003; Traxler, 2000). For example, on one older standardized assessment study, deaf adolescents performed at a fourth-grade level on reading comprehension but at a seventh-grade level on mathematics (Holt, Traxler, & Allen, 1992). Discrepancies between hearing and deaf student groups were also larger for reading comprehension than for mathematics: deaf students’ mean reading scores varied from two to six grades below the mean for hearing students, with the gap increasing with advancing grade. The mathematics component fared better: the mean for young deaf students was only one grade below grade level and stayed within three grades levels throughout the cross-sectional sample. While there is a great deal of variability in student achievement in math and reading (e.g., Ansell & Pagliaro, 2006; Antia et al. 2009), these average trends have remained relatively stable into recent years (Qi & Mitchell, 2007).

The focus of accountability reform is on reducing the achievement gap between student groups. Although teachers indicate that state assessments can provide useful information about student progress at the local level (Luckner & Bowen, 2006), there is very little data available on the proficiency rates of students who are deaf or hard of hearing on state standardized assessments used for accountability (see Antia et al., 2009, for data on subsamples from Arizona and Colorado). There are two summaries available that look at student scores across individual schools or states: (a) studies by Cawthon and colleagues and (b) by the National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities (2006). I have looked at the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) report cards for schools for the deaf for three years (Cawthon, 2004, 2007, 2008). On the whole, the achievement levels for students who are deaf or hard of hearing were no lower than for other groups of students with disabilities. In terms of proficiency on state standardized assessments, students who are deaf or hard of hearing scored mostly in the lower quartile (25% of students at the school being proficient at grade level). Perhaps surprisingly, there was not a consistent trend of higher scores in math than in reading. Yet there were several examples of high percentages of deaf and hard of hearing students meeting proficiency guidelines in the 2005–06 school year, particularly in Kansas, Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas. Several of these states had demonstrated similar levels of student achievement in previous years, strengthening the stability of this finding (Cawthon, 2004).

The National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities (NCLID) has gathered available information from state departments of education for several low-incidence disability groups, including students who are deaf or hard of hearing (NCLID, 2007).). These summaries are for all public education students in the state, not just those who attend the publicly funded school for the deaf. The research is challenging because accountability reform does not require states to disaggregate their student achievement data by disability type. Those states that do are also sometimes reluctant to share this information with others (NCLID, 2007). Results combined scores across two to four states, depending on the grade and test subject. These averages therefore represent the percentage of students who meet state proficiency standards, but the way those standards are defined certainly varies for students in that group.

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