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Advocates for Nebraska students who are deaf or hard of hearing want to increase standards for sign language interpreters for the first time in 15 years, though some school officials worry that would exacerbate an existing shortage.

John Wyvill, executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, acknowledged there is a shortage of interpreters, especially in rural areas, but said raising the standards should be a priority.

“Simply put, educational interpreters with inadequate interpreting skills render the classroom incoherent,” he said. “The bottom-line takeaway is that clearly many deaf and hard of hearing students are being left behind, and they’re being left behind because the interpreter is not offering full access.”

He stressed that interpreters aren't bad, but that too often, they make errors or omit information being shared in the classroom. Young children, especially, don’t realize they are missing information, so they don’t ask for clarification and fall further and further behind, he said.

But some school officials say the state's interpreters already are well qualified.

“We do strive for the highest standards possible, and as a professional group the interpreters are concerned with skill building and are highly qualified as a group,” said Jill Bird, coordinator of the Southeast Regional Programs for Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, one of four regional groups created by the state to support school districts.

Still, a legislative study that explored ways to improve the quality and availability of interpreters in school and community settings recommended requiring a higher assessment score for Nebraska’s educational interpreters.

It was among several recommendations resulting from the study, and advocates have asked the Nebraska Board of Education to change state education rules to reflect the more rigorous requirement. The Nebraska Department of Education oversees qualifications of educational interpreters, who are exempt from licensing by the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Now, state education rules require school sign language interpreters score a minimum of 3.5 out of a possible 5 on the Educational Interpreter’s Performance Assessment. The legislative study recommends raising the minimum score to 4.

Wyvill said the change could increase the amount of information relayed by interpreters to students by 20 percent, from 60 to 80 percent, based on estimates from one of the authors of the assessment.

Jenny Fundus, director of special education for Lincoln Public Schools, questioned those percentages as not being research-based and said raising the requirement would make hiring interpreters more difficult.

“We worry if it goes up to a 4.0, it’s going to be really hard to find candidates with that criteria,” she said.

Peter Seiler, secretary for the Nebraska Association of the Deaf, told the Nebraska Board of Education on Thursday that the change is overdue and a necessary step to increase expectations of students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

And an interpreter shortage shouldn’t preclude higher standards, he said.

“If schools have problems getting interpreters, we need to find better ways to recruit, find better ways to train them,” he said.

There are 796 deaf or hard of hearing students in Nebraska, and 122 use sign language interpreters, officials said.

Wyvill said there are 101 educational interpreters in Nebraska, and just 23 of them have the level of training recommended.

Nebraska is among 24 states that require an assessment level of 3.5. Eleven states require the recommended 4.0 score. Average scores for Nebraska interpreters range from 3.6 to 3.8, according to the state education department.

The state has provided professional development for sign language interpreters for 18 years, but state rules don’t require interpreters to retest once they’ve scored a 3.5.

Two years ago, LPS started requiring their interpreters to retest every five years, a step toward encouraging interpreters to focus on skill-building.

Although Bird said she supports the highest standards for interpreters, the assessment is just one indicator. Good interpreters also must have an understanding of ethics and boundaries and the ability to collaborate with teachers, she said.

Katie Ness, a sign language interpreter at Lincoln Southeast High School, said interpreters work closely with teachers so they know quite a bit about the material before they work with students. About half the district’s interpreters scored at least a 4.0 on the assessment, she said.

State officials said there are many issues to work through before raising the standard, including how to help existing interpreters achieve the higher score, how long it would take and the cost.

"It's not going to be an easy task for us," said Rhonda Fleischer, state education department liaison for the regional programs that support school districts. 

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he wants to bring people together to begin to work through those issues.

“There’s a real legitimate interest in looking at this,” he said.

Wyvill said working through the challenges is important.

“We’re not talking about the death of common sense here,” he said. “We as the state of Nebraska should say we can do better for our students.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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