On October 16, 2019, The Rockefeller Institute of Government hosted a discussion forum on the reading disorder dyslexia, methods for detecting it, and strategies for properly serving students who have it. National research experts Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz from Yale University talked about the neurological foundations of dyslexia and the proper structure of screening tools to detect it in children. School leaders Dr. Jay Russell of The Windward School (White Plains and Manhattan) and Tim Castanza of Bridge Prep Charter School (Staten Island) talked about school models and instructional approaches that work for kids with dyslexia. And Amanda McCaleb, the Literacy Intervention Specialist for the largest school district in Missouri, spoke of Missouri’s experience in its first year implementing a program of universal dyslexia screening. Ms. McCaleb, a state leader on early childhood intervention for dyslexia and other language-based disabilities who spearheaded the rollout of universal early screening in Springfield, expands on her panel presentation in this guest blog post for the Rockefeller Institute. (The Rockefeller Institute’s Policy Outsider podcast on the forum is available here)
There is new hope for students with dyslexia in Missouri. Unfortunately, district and school leaders are going to have to work harder than anticipated to turn that hope into the promise of equal literacy, but at least we’ve started on that path. Hopefully, states that may follow Missouri down this road – such as New York – can learn a few valuable lessons from our experience.
In June 2016, Governor Jay Nixon signed into law a new requirement that public schools conduct dyslexia screenings for all students in grades kindergarten through third grade. The legislation had several components, including this universal screening mandate, calling for schools to provide “reasonable classroom support,” and offering dyslexia awareness and specialized literacy instruction training for practicing teachers. The law also created the Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia, a group consisting of 20 members prescribed in the law. The task force was charged with advising and making recommendations to the governor, Joint Committee on Education, and relevant state agencies regarding dyslexia. They were also charged with making recommendations for a statewide system for identification, intervention, and delivery of supports for students with dyslexia.
Finally, we were not only going to know which children truly had dyslexia and would benefit from evidence-based instructional supports and targeted interventions, we were going to have schools and teachers ready to properly serve these students.
Districts began waiting, with much anticipation, for guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) based upon the recommendations of the task force. What screening tools would we use? How would we determine if a student is “at-risk” for dyslexia or a related disorder based on the screening we would do? How would we communicate screening results to teachers and parents? What exactly are “reasonable classroom supports”?
I wish I could say – I desperately wanted to say – that the guidance document answered all of our questions, that every student in K-3 was screened properly, and that students identified as being “at-risk” for dyslexia learned eagerly and happily ever after in their structured literacy classrooms. Alas, in just one sentence of that document, the hope for any kind of precise guidance vanished. There it was, in the third paragraph: “given that Missouri is a local control state, school districts and charter schools have considerable autonomy with regard to which screening and diagnostic tools are used as well as what instructional methods and programs to implement.”
DESE tried to create at least some basic consistency, providing a “screening organizer” worksheet and including several caveats: (1) there is no one test or tool that encompasses all the recommended skills, (2) any screening tools selected must have evidence of adequate reliability and validity, and (3) administration, scoring, and interpretation should be completed in accordance with the directions, norms and cut points provided with the instrument. Still, however, every district across the state was free to choose its own approach to detecting and addressing dyslexia.
It was pretty much a mess.
Some districts took this freedom as a hall pass and would go on to do the bare minimum to meet the legislative requirements. Many simply said that the placement assessments they already used served just fine as a dyslexia screening tool, whether or not they were based on the necessary neuroscience, and continued on with business as usual.
Each year districts are to report to the state the number of students who were screened and identified “at-risk” or “not at-risk” based on their literacy capabilities, along with students who were not screened or exempt from screening. Districts also report what screening tool is used, with the state’s checklist including the popular reading-level assessments of DIBELS, AIMSweb, FAST, plus the catch-all option “Other.” Initial statewide results in Missouri’s first year of implementation indicated that 75 percent of districts selected “other,” identifying a variety of tools. Adding even more inconsistency to the effort, districts across the state also established varying cut-point criteria based on these differing tools, meaning a student could be identified as “at-risk” for dyslexia in one district but not in another district.
Allow me to do a quick recap: our school districts now have an unfunded (though well-intentioned and desperately needed) mandate, in a locally controlled state where there is considerable autonomy, no clear guidance on evidence-based dyslexia specific screening tools, and no clear criteria for identifying students who are at-risk for dyslexia.
Are you thinking this sounds pretty dire? Are you wondering what good could come from this fractured and messy approach? Truth be told, I was feeling the same way. But the bottom line is this: dyslexia legislation, in not only Missouri but the 41 other states that have passed similar legislation, is grounded in the hope and determination of students, parents, community members, teachers, and school leaders. It is grounded in the relentless advocacy efforts to screen, identify, provide supports, and change the trajectory for our most struggling readers.
Thankfully, my district, Springfield Public Schools – the largest single district in Missouri by enrollment – used the flexibility and autonomy granted districts to show what good can be done under this new legislation. We chose to develop an in-district dyslexia task force that tapped the expertise and input of district leaders, building administrators, literacy specialists, dyslexia specialists, classroom teachers, and parents. We met multiple times to review the guidance document and determine what screening tools to use and which classroom supports to adopt.
Starting in the very first year, we implemented a two-step screening process. In the first step, we screened every student to identify who was at risk of not meeting grade-level standards in reading. To do this, we used a combination of standardized and informal tasks, including i-Ready, Rapid Automatized Naming from Mississippi’s Lexercise screener, Developmental Reading Assessment, and the Words Their Way Primary/Elementary Spelling Inventory, depending on which was most appropriate for the grade level of the student being screened. We then used a categorical model to place students in one of three categories falling on a continuum: no-risk, some-risk, high-risk. The second step of the screening process was to determine whether the students we identified as at-risk for not meeting grade level standards in reading had characteristics of dyslexia. To do this, classroom teachers completed the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen.
After analyzing our data from the first year, and gathering feedback from teachers, school leaders, and parents, we knew we needed to problem-solve around a couple of issues. First, because the new law required us to screen within the first 30 days of school, classroom teachers did not feel they had adequate time to get to know their students, and therefore did not feel confident completing the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen that asked questions such as “how likely do you think it is that the student will be ready to go to the next grade?” The mandate to screen kindergarteners by January 30th avoided this complication in that grade.
Second, our data indicated a significantly higher proportion of students in second and third grades testing at-risk than in kindergarten and first grade. We reexamined the assessments being used and found a lack of reading and oral fluency measures tested, correcting this in our second year. Still, because these initial screening tools are curriculum-based assessments and the material in early grades are basic, they too rarely will rate a child in kindergarten or first grade as “below grade level” and I fear we are missing the chance to identify kids at risk for dyslexia right when interventions could help them the most.
The third issue targeted for improvement was parent notification. We did not formally notify parents of screening results the first year, instead relying on classroom teachers to discuss any concerns with parents as was the typical process. We could have used a better process.
This is, and will continue to be, a learning and growing process for Springfield. This year, we have modified our screening process and tools to more accurately identify at-risk students at each grade level. Parents now receive a formal letter at parent-teacher conferences if their child was identified as at-risk, explaining the screening process and outlining next steps. The district is working collaboratively and supportively with individual schools to identify the programs and processes in place to meet the needs of students identified as at-risk for dyslexia.
The district also piloted in our first year a computer-based, student-driven intervention called MindPlay Virtual Reading Coach, which had reported promising results. We saw signs of significant improvement, and this year are making the program available free to any student identified as at-risk.
It has taken the ongoing collaboration, teamwork, and – most importantly – patience of multiple departments, district leaders, and our dedicated classroom teachers. But we are getting there.
As a panel at the International Literacy Association’s annual convention recently concluded, it is our moral and ethical obligation to use the best evidence we can muster for making policy decisions of consequence. The literacy leadership of Springfield Public Schools agrees.
Twenty-nine states now require dyslexia screening, while another 13 states have different dyslexia-related legislation – a doubling of the number of states with dyslexia laws in just the past six years (a great interactive map is available from the National Center on Improving Literacy). New York has an opportunity to learn from these states, better improving the lives of schoolchildren who are struggling with reading because of dyslexia. Bring together key stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and reading researchers, and ask the tough questions, encouraging dialogue not debate. Legislative decisions matter, and it matters that these decisions get made.
Researchers have shown that as many as one in five children have dyslexia, and we see stunning statistics that more than 85 percent of individuals in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate and analyses of prison populations show that nearly 50 percent of inmates have dyslexia. Doing the right thing here effects far more than just the reading levels of schoolchildren.
More than 500,000 public school students in New York State likely are going to school every day knowing they can’t read or are having a hard time learning how to read. That’s a half-million students who are incredibly bright and incredibly frustrated. In kindergarten through third grade – the grade levels that would be subject to dyslexia screening under legislation currently introduced in the New York State legislature – there are nearly 144,000 students who are sitting in their elementary classrooms, waiting to be seen, waiting to be understood, and waiting for policymakers to lead the effort to help them.
We know from our experience in Missouri that smart and properly designed policies around dyslexia identification and intervention will have an unbelievably positive impact on educators, students, families, and communities. Early screening matters, so problems can be found and fixed while the brain is easier to retrain. Screening tools that are solidly research-based and that are developed specifically for dyslexia screening are the ones designed to do the job correctly. The identification and use of a statewide screening tool will help support the development of consistent policies, will allow districts to freely share best practices, and will accommodate student mobility. Providing clear guidance for the identification of students who at-risk for dyslexia will prevent students, families, teachers, and district administrators from facing moving targets.
If New York embraces these takeaways from Missouri’s experience implementing universal dyslexia screening, it will be miles ahead of the game. But New York need not stop there. Encourage the use of evidence-based practices and evidence-based professional development, and give teachers who are working with our struggling readers the tools, skills, and support they need. Empowered educators will empower their students, and those students will empower their communities and change the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda McCaleb is the Literacy Intervention Specialist for Springfield Public Schools, the largest school district in Missouri. Ms. McCaleb has been a state leader on early childhood intervention for dyslexia and other language-based disabilities, and spearheaded the rollout of universal early screening in Springfield. She is trained in multiple intervention programs, specializes in reading evaluations, and began working with students privately in 2015. Ms. McCaleb earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in education from Drury University, and plans to complete her dissertation and receive her doctoral degree in reading education from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in 2020.
 Shaywitz, Sally, M.D., Overcoming Dyslexia (Vintage Books: New York, NY, 2003), p.6.
 PK-12 total 2018-19 public school population in New York State is 2,577,890; with one in five struggling with dyslexia (see note 3), 515,578 PK-12 students are at risk. The K-3 total 2018-19 public school student population in New York State is 719,568; one in five with dyslexia totals 143,914 students. Enrollment data from New York State Department of Education, at http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/statistics/enroll-n-staff/home.html.