For all of Lynn Lane's 17 years, she has never once heard a spoken word. And more important, she has never heard the way words fit together to form the English language.
Deaf students 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 such as history or algebra, English is the roadblock that routinely delays or prohibits their graduation.
Educators at the Mississippi School for the Deaf say no deaf student has ever passed the English assessment test on the first try. The overall first-try pass rate for hearing and disabled students is 83.1 percent.
"These tests are grossly unfair to deaf students. Hearing children are exposed to so much English language from birth. Deaf students don't get that exposure to English," said Jean Andrews, director of graduate programs in deaf education at Lamar University in Texas.
Sign language is visual, and is not always translated word for word into English.
For instance, the phrase "raining cats and dogs" would not be signed verbatim. Instead, the phrase would be signed "raining heavily." But if a student never heard the phrase, how could he or she know what it means? Experts say the average deaf child is not introduced to English until age 6, upon entering school.
Historically, deaf students have had a hard time taking standardized achievement tests, particularly in reading, said 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. Mitchell said many students do not demonstrate high-school level reading ability. He said in 2003 more than two-thirds of 18-year-olds and three-fourths of 17-year-olds nationally were reading below the high school level.
"From the standpoint of measurement, there are a lot of questions about whether or not the tests that states have adopted are appropriate for special populations," Mitchell said. "You don't compel students by law to show up to school only to denigrate them."
The Mississippi school is appealing to state officials to 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 saw a word for which there is no sign, such as "gorgeous," he or she could refer to the thesaurus and find "beautiful," a word that might be recognizable, said Dana Campbell, director of technology and public relations at the deaf school.
Lynn 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, including biology, U.S. history and math. But she has yet to pass the vocabulary multiple choice portion of the English test. The last time she took it, she scored 299, one point short of passing. 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 were allowed to "bridge" or translate the vocabulary into sign language.
The Mississippi Department of Education allows interpreters to translate portions of all tests except 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.
All students can take the English test as many as 10 times. The students 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 until they are 21 years old, said Lynne Hanner, the school's director of institutional advancement.
They also struggle with English, Hanner said.
In addition to the test, Alabama deaf students must take four additional language units than hearing students to address the English problem, 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.
Hanner said deaf educators walk a fine line. They want the students to have a fair playing field without depending on a crutch.
"That's the bottom line of what we want here. They have to believe in themselves," Hanner said. "Overcoming language barriers, that's the challenge."
Andrews, the Texas professor who is working on reading projects for the deaf in Alabama and Louisiana, said accountability is another issue. "We do need to do a better job of teaching English to deaf students," she said.
Mississippi recently applied its accountability standards to the deaf school. The school's six seniors last spring received completion certificates, not diplomas. The reading challenge discourages some from seeking a diploma, school officials say.
Andrews said she is working with the Louisiana School for the Deaf on projects to understand deaf students' reading comprehension ability by studying their reading errors and assisting deaf students in translating English text into sign language.
And what began as a pilot project at the Mississippi school in 1995 is now being used in more than 40 states. Sandra Edwards, an instructor at the Mississippi school, is the co-creator of Fairview Learning. With it, instructors teach students the different signs for each definition of multi-meaning words. Edwards's father was deaf, but she is not. She said there is no substitute for parental involvement.
"If parents would learn to sign, that would make a difference," she said.