Kansas SB 444: My Testimony

Kansas Statehouse_E_H_tulips

Testimony for Public Hearing

Kansas Senate, Education Committee

February 17, 2016

SB No. 444 (Committee) – On establishing an assessment program for deaf and hard of hearing children in Kansas

Dear Education Committee members,

My name is Tara Schupner Congdon, and I am a product of the preK-12 deaf education system in Kansas.

I write today to urge you to support SB 444, establishing a statewide bilingual language assessment program for deaf and hard of hearing children in the state of Kansas. My personal experience and observations of deaf education in this state over the past 30 years leads me to wholeheartedly attest to the critical need for this program, which has the potential to advance the linguistic, educational, social, emotional, and economic well-being of all deaf and hard of hearing children in Kansas.

As a profoundly deaf bilingual child of hearing parents, I entered the Total Communication (spoken/written English + Signing Exact English, SEE) program at Santa Fe Trail Elementary School, Shawnee Mission School District. With access to comprehensive visual communication through teachers of the deaf who signed and interpreters, as well as auditory and speech therapy, while fully included in the mainstream, I rapidly surpassed age-appropriate milestones. I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School in 2001 with a 4.6 GPA, as a Kansas Honor Scholar, AP Scholar, and National Merit Scholar. I hold bachelor’s degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s in Literature from American University, and work as manager of communications for an international behavioral and neuroscience research center in Washington, D.C.  I am a product of the Kansas deaf education system.

However, I am one of a lucky few. I entered preschool ahead of many of my age peers across Kansas who were severe to profoundly deaf and came from non-signing, hearing families. I was one of few with hearing parents who learned to sign post-diagnosis and who consequently could observe and informally evaluate my full language abilities in the absence of a statewide assessment program. The majority of my peers entered school with significant language delays that persisted, and grew. Had a pre-K assessment program been in place, their language delays could have been identified and effective language exposure and intervention services provided from infancy, before they entered the classroom. This lack adversely impacted their academic outcomes and employment prospects and, today, many of them, along with those from subsequent cohorts, struggle with low literacy and educational achievement, unemployment or entrapment in low-level jobs, and dependence on Social Security Disability Income and other social services. They were capable of so much more, had their language delays been caught and addressed early, through intervention that included bilingual, visual language exposure. They are also products of Kansas deaf education.

I maintain friendships with numerous deaf people — oral, SEE, and ASL — teachers of the deaf, and interpreters throughout Kansas, as well as across the nation. I frequently receive numerous “horror stories” from teachers and interpreters of deprivation and damage and their frustration at being unable to speak up on behalf of students or recommend solutions drawn from statistical data or their own experience and knowledge of the benefits of visual communication. They share their anecdotes in hushed, confidential exchanges because of fear of retaliation from school officials and administrators and others who oppose providing access to visual communication or bilingual education from a misguided belief that it harms English language acquisition and/or should not be used in combination with cochlear implants. This thinking is inaccurate and outdated; scientific research is demonstrating the opposite (see addendum). However, in the absence of publicly available assessment data specific to the deaf children of Kansas, the debate over how best to prevent or alleviate these language delays persists, teachers and interpreters remain muzzled, and children continue to arrive at school unprepared to learn on pace with their hearing peers.

Establishing an assessment program and tracking system that utilizes scientifically verified tools based on age-appropriate, standardized milestones in American Sign Language and English, inclusive of its visual modalities — rather than assessments designed for children with normal hearing levels — will enable educators and families to accurately measure language development and identify delays, whether intervention is needed, and the best intervention strategies to support language and reading acquisition. It also will enable researchers and educators to document and statistically quantify effective approaches and apply that data to improving Kansas’s early intervention and deaf education systems.

Please enable the state to assess, track, and ensure young deaf children’s readiness for school so they do not arrive at kindergarten with significant language delays, which can result in them “playing catch up” for the rest of their education and lives. You have the opportunity today to make Kansas a national leader in improving deaf and hard of hearing children’s readiness for school and educational outcomes by passing SB 444. I urge the Kansas Senate to capitalize on that opportunity.

Thank you for your consideration.

Tara Schupner Congdon

Addendum

I work at the National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2, in Washington, D.C., an international behavioral and neuroscience research center composed of 70 researchers, 22 labs, 30 centers and universities, and 143 schools. The Center focuses on visual language, early language acquisition, and reading and literacy, particularly involving deaf children of various hearing levels, and serves as a national and international resource.

According to findings by scientists and researchers at and affiliated with VL2, the use of language assessment systems for deaf children is a vital necessity. Lack of clear language exposure and communication in the critical early years can leave lasting adverse neurological impacts, identifiable in brain scans. Resulting language delays cause detrimental effects on reading, academic, social, and employment outcomes throughout the child’s lifespan.

Conversely, VL2 findings show that early exposure to visual language confers significant, lasting benefits on the young deaf child. This exposure leads to structural brain changes and cognitive processing advantages, including enhanced visual attention, higher cognitive and socio-emotional self-regulation abilities, language and reading advantages, and greater executive function abilities. Findings also show that early visual language supports the development of spoken language. Language, not speech, is of paramount importance for babies to hit milestones and have normal brain and cognitive development.

With early bilingual exposure that includes a visual language, children:

  • Have a larger vocabulary size at a younger age;
  • Use more English words in their writing than deaf students with lower ASL proficiency;
  • Are more prepared for school because of incidental knowledge and vocabulary;
  • Are ready to write letters of the alphabet earlier because of early fingerspelling experience that bridges ASL and English; and
  • Sometimes read faster and more accurately than their hearing classmates.

For more: VL2 Parents Package

This research shows that early bilingual language exposure is a biological necessity for young deaf children, since it ensures full access to language, development of language through normal milestones, and cognitive development of the language center in the brain, which in turn leads to greater readiness to learn. These findings are backed by more than 100 papers and research briefs on bilingualism and language development in deaf children produced by researchers affiliated or connected with VL2. The VL2 Data Sharing project includes a longitudinal study on language, cognitive, and literacy outcomes in young deaf children as well as a visual communication and sign language checklist developed from the data gathered through the longitudinal study.

The use of standardized developmental checklists to monitor a child’s progress in K-12 settings is a long-established practice in education. However, according to VL2 researchers*, the use of assessments designed for monolingual (English-speaking) children to assess deaf children does not adequately measure their language abilities. Classroom teachers, specialists, and early interventionists often attempt to document visual language development by adapting existing assessments designed for spoken language. This produces invalid results that suggest deaf children are “within the range of typically developing children” when young; these children frequently fall precipitously behind after reaching school age. This lack of appropriate assessment tools leaves deaf children and their parents and educators at a significant disadvantage in measuring age-appropriate language development and readiness for school. However, in recent years, standardized checklists based on reliable, accurate scientific data have become available to clearly document the developmental milestones of deaf children from birth to age 5 who are visual learners.

I urge you to visit vl2.gallaudet.edu and review the many studies and resources it offers that are particularly relevant to SB 444.

* The opinions expressed in this testimonial are the author’s alone and do not reflect the opinions of VL2, Gallaudet University, or the National Science Foundation. 

*Simms, Laurene; Sharon Baker; and M. Diane Clark. “The Standardized Visual Communication and Sign Language Checklist for Signing Children.” Sign Language Studies, 14:1, Fall 2013, pp. 101-124.

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