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State mandates literacy screening of young learners

Massachusetts schools for the first time will face a requirement to screen young students for dyslexia and other potential learning disabilities at least twice per year under a policy state education officials approved Tuesday.

Taking aim at what Education Secretary James Peyser dubbed a "wait-to-fail strategy," the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously in favor of regulations setting statewide standards for districts to monitor student literacy progress.

Many Bay State schools are already performing some kind of dyslexia or learning disability screening, but officials said the existing framework is dotted with gaps. Now, schools will be subject to the same requirement to assess every kindergartener, first grader, second grader and third grader at least twice annually using state-approved tools to gauge their "reading ability and progress in literacy skills."

Supporters hope the regulations will unjam more than a decade of stagnant reading proficiency scores and help identify students who need additional resources earlier on in their education.

"The bottom line is we have not moved the needle on early literacy the way we need to in order to meaningfully change long-term student outcomes and achieve real equity. A critical factor in these disappointing results is the lack of valid, consistent and usable information about student reading skill well before the end of their third grade," Peyser said in June when introducing a draft of the measure. "In too many schools, young children are not universally or effectively screened for early literacy development. Equally important, when screening is done, it too often does not lead to timely supports or changes in the underlying instructional program."

Schools will need to intervene to assist students found to be "significantly below relevant benchmarks" with follow-up action to determine how to support their needs, such as by supplementary reading instruction, then notify a parent or guardian within 30 days.

The new regulations will take effect July 1, 2023.

About 300 public school districts in Massachusetts already have state-approved literacy screeners in use, officials said, though it's unclear if every single school in each one of those districts is currently conducting regular screening.

"It's possible that one school in a large district is utilizing an approved assessment, and so they're sort of getting credit for that," DESE Director of Literacy and Humanities Katherine Tarca said Tuesday. "So the 300 estimate might be a little high, but we think it's a majority of our districts (that) are already using one of the approved tools in some way."

In June, Peyser said current screening methods "often don't reflect best practice for identifying potential cases in a timely manner." That delays educators from making adjustments or offering extra classroom help, which in turn leads to deployment of more expensive long-term responses such as special education services.

"In effect, we have a so-called 'wait to fail' strategy," Peyser said. "Students are not given the targeted help they need when they need it to address their reading difficulties until they have fallen well behind their peers, resulting in what is often a lifetime struggle to catch up. The good news is we know how to do better."

Massachusetts fourth-graders achieved an average National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, reading score of 231 in 2005 with 44 percent deemed proficient or better, according to Peyser. In 2019, the year with the most recent data available, the average Bay State fourth-grader score was once again 231, and 45 percent of students were proficient or better — outcomes the secretary called "basically the same numbers with 14 or 15 years in between."

Peyser said Tuesday that the mandatory screenings, in addition to classroom observations, will help identify students who require special education services earlier in their schooling "to make sure they get the services they deserve when they deserve them."

"I don't believe the net effect will be more special ed referrals," Peyser said. "In fact, if it works well, it may actually be fewer, earlier and less costly referrals through special education, which will not only support those students, but ultimately support all students who are trying to learn to read."

The regulations approved Tuesday build on a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in October 2018, which tasked the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Early Education and Care with crafting new guidelines to help districts identify students with learning disabilities.

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Then-Sen. Barbara L'Italien, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation, estimated at the time that dyslexia affects one in five children in Massachusetts.

Education officials released dyslexia guidelines in 2020, and the new regulation approved Tuesday formally requires several practices first recommended in those guidelines, according to a DESE spokesperson.

"This has been a painfully slow process to get a regulation done for a tiny facet of the comprehensive work that really needs to happen in order for all children, or at least the vast majority of children, to be able to read proficiently when they should," board member Michael Moriarty said in what he described as a "message for the Legislature."

Moriarty said Massachusetts policymakers need to do more to help students learn to read and to equip educators to address any obstacles, calling for "right-to-read legislation that is comprehensive, that is properly vetted and funded."

He pointed to improvement in literacy rates in Mississippi as both an example of the kind of progress that can happen and also as a warning that Massachusetts could fall behind.

"Mississippi moved from the bottom of the pack to the middle of the pack, and they seem to continue to grow. If Mississippi gets ahead of Massachusetts, I think we're all going to have to move out of state. Let's not have that happen to us," Moriarty said." It's time for a good right-to-read legislation."

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