Recently a follower on Twitter expressed his outrage and disbelief at a statistic being passed around in his class about a shockingly low reading level for deaf students. Unfortunately I've seen this statistic being presented in various permutations including that deaf people in general either cannot or do not surpass a fourth grade reading level, particularly those who aren't implanted. I'm happy to report these statements are false. However, statistics do show we've got a lot of work to do on the education front (and not just for deaf students, either).
The Real Deal:
According to Marc Marschark, the Director of the Center for Education Research Partnerships at NTID, the statistic appears in a 2000 study by Carol B. Traxler, which purports that, after the analysis of SAT reading comprehension scores, the median (not the average) scores for deaf high schoolers were around the fourth grade level. The SATs not being a definitive measure of anyone's literacy, the information should be taken seriously, and also with a grain of salt.
While the statistic is still a frightening one, it does mean that fifty percent of deaf high schoolers are reading above a fourth grade reading level. Another thing to note is that this statistic is often leveraged as a way to speak out against certain methods of deaf education. In reality, the scores are not delineated by d/Deaf self-identification, and included all deaf students, whether or not the student's primary mode of communication was ASL, SEE or speech, and regardless of whether he or she wore hearing aids, a cochlear implant or nothing. Check out Marschark's full interview with Hands and Voices on the subject here.
Why are Deaf Kids Behind?
Several reasons, really. Firstly, the statistics from 2000 would represent 12th graders born in 1988, where the average detection rate for deafness would have been 2.5-3 years of age--a lot of missed time in the early language acquisition window. Currently, 97 percent of American infants are screened for hearing loss before they even leave the hospital, so it remains to be seen if this early detection will give deaf students a leg up. Secondly, ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and 75 percent of parents never learn to sign conversationally. This means that deaf children don't have access to language in the home, and are not being read to like their hearing peers. Finally, as mentioned, the reading level statistics haven't been categorized by students' communication or education methods. That is to say, according to the statistics, oral deaf mainstream students are just as behind as their Deaf school ASL-using peers, and no one has bothered to analyze the data in such a way that would actually help us understand how best to educate deaf children.
Deaf vs. Hearing: How do we stack up?
So what do we do now?
For all our students, deaf and hearing, it is imperative that the curriculum in our schools be improved. Students will never learn to read past a fifth-grade level if it is never required of them. As for deaf students, is the fourth grade level a glass ceiling? Absolutely not. Marschark compiled data on a school for the deaf in which the curriculum was revised over a four year period to focus on reading and language comprehension skills, and reports that both the classes of 2008 and 2009 (high schoolers at the time of the interview) were reading on grade level or above. In short: if we teach them, students-- deaf or hearing-- can and will learn.
Further reading: Deaf School vs. Mainstreaming Pros and Cons
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 2/28/2013