Reading & Literacy

Most States Screen All Kids for Dyslexia. Why Not California?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — March 21, 2023 5 min read
Dyslexia word formed with wooden blocks.
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Advocates say universal screening for dyslexia in the early grades could shorten or prevent extended interventions for students later on in school. And they can muster research findings to bolster their claim.

Consider these data, from the International Dyslexia Association and Joseph Torgeson, director emeritus, Florida Center for Reading Research:

  • Early identification of struggling readers and subsequent prevention programs can reduce by up to 70 percent the number of children placed in special education.
  • Interventions for struggling readers that start in 4th grade take four times longer than those that start in late kindergarten.
  • First graders who struggle to read and are economically disadvantaged rarely catch up.

But the application of the strategy isn’t necessarily so clear cut. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent right now than in California, where multiple attempts to pass legislation requiring universal school-based screening for dyslexia risk factors have met with resistance, most notably from the California Teachers Association.

This February, Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank) again presented legislation around dyslexia screening. It’s the fourth attempt to get such legislation passed, according to dyslexia advocate Megan Potente, who is co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, a co-sponsor of SB691, which would require all districts serving K-2 students to screen them for risk of dyslexia annually, unless parents or guardians opt out.

Opponents and proponents of the debate over California’s dyslexia screening proposal spoke with Education Week on why the state remains one of the last holdouts to adopt universal screening for dyslexia risk factors, what the proposed legislation entails, and what critics say concerns them. Here’s what they said.

California is one of 10 states without a dyslexia screening mandate

Currently, California is one of 10 states that does not mandate screening for dyslexia risk indicators, according to the National Center on Improving Literacy at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.
Screening varies widely from one California district to the next, according to Potente.

“Many districts don’t screen at all,” said Potente, a former elementary educator who has worked as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, literacy coach, special education teacher, and private practice educational therapist. “Some districts do screen. But they don’t use tools that are accurate, and they don’t measure critical literacy skills.”

If passed, SB691 would require annual screening for dyslexia risk factors for all of the state’s kindergartners, 1st graders and 2nd graders starting in the 2024–25 school year. It would also require the establishment of an approved list of evidence-based screening instruments that are culturally, linguistically, and developmentally appropriate.

Bill sponsor calls the bill a ‘significant social justice issue’

Sen. Portantino said he knows how it feels to be diagnosed with dyslexia at a later age. “My mother didn’t find out I was dyslexic until I was in the 8th grade,” he said.

He refers to universal screening as a significant social justice issue, observing that families with greater resources can more easily access alternate means of evaluating their children for reading problems if they suspect delays.

“There are a lot of hard working parents, English-language-learner parents out there, who are struggling every minute of every day and don’t have the ability to navigate that on their own,” he said.

Potente, of Decoding Dyslexia, added: “We do not understand why we wouldn’t want teachers and families to have the benefits that screening offers.”

Teachers’ association says it opposes legislation, not screening

The CTA, the state teachers’ union, has raised concerns about similar past legislation authored by Portantino, even though it supports the practice of screening for dyslexia in principle.

“The legislation presented last year, and the year before, is the issue. It’s not the screening,” said Claudia Briggs, interim communications manager of the CTA.

Briggs said that the association has not yet met on the current bill, which proposes annual universal screening for students in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades (not including 3rd grade, as did previous legislation) and, therefore, has not declared a position on it, though it opposed versions of the bill.

“It needs to be clear that educators completely support testing, diagnostics, and early screening, and they always have. It’s just that we need to have legislation with thoughtful implementation,” Briggs said.

Briggs pointed to two aspects of previous, similar proposed legislation related to mandatory universal screening that the union finds concerning. One is that it could lead to overidentification of students with dyslexia, especially among English learners.

“It could also result in lost instructional time that we just couldn’t get back,” Briggs continued. She said that the association would like to see more screeners at school sites—individuals who administer screenings for dyslexia risk factors.

“There aren’t enough screeners,” she said. “It’s taking up class time [for teachers to screen].”

Addressing concerns

Potente doesn’t see the screening process as particularly time-consuming.

“The bill would ensure that teachers and parents gained information based on evidence-based, brief screening assessments that really only take 15 minutes [per student],” she said.

Sen. Portantino agreed that the teachers’ concern over the potentially negative impact of screening on English learners is legitimate. But, he added, approaching screening properly—with linguistically sensitive, culturally competent screeners—would eliminate the potential to over-identify dyslexia among students learning English, making that concern a “false notion.”

“An approach like SB691 is a lever we need to ensure what most definitely should be happening in schools is happening,” said Potente, who added that the bill will go before the state’s Senate Education Committee on March 29. Its chances of passage this time around are unclear. Sen. Portantino expressed frustration that previous similar legislation he proposed, which he said received bipartisan support and passed the Senate nearly unanimously, failed to make it out of the state house.

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