Not as easy as ABC: California’s battle over dyslexia

California is one of only 11 states in the country that doesn’t require universal dyslexia screening in public schools.

It took Luciano-Elijah Valencia a stay at a juvenile detention center to be diagnosed with dyslexia. With the new diagnosis, his lifelong struggle in school suddenly made much more sense. As a young student, his teachers “tried how they were teaching everyone else and it wasn’t working,” he said. “I got frustrated and would goof off.”

Valencia spent six years in and out of prison, but was able to enroll in academic classes through an education program in his detention facility. His dyslexia diagnosis helped him get targeted literacy tutoring. He eventually graduated with an associate’s degree in sociology.

Teaching children to read becomes complicated when around one in five students suffer from dyslexia, a learning disability that makes spelling, word recognition, and phonemic awareness much more difficult.

California is one of only 11 states in the country that doesn’t require universal dyslexia screening in public schools. While federal law doesn’t mandate screening in public schools either, a 2018 law requires it in federal prisons. This means that in California, a person with dyslexia—like Valencia—may be diagnosed in prison faster than in school.

Dyslexia advocates say that without early screening, struggling readers are not given the support they need in the critical elementary school years. Lori DePole, the director of a grassroots advocacy organization lobbying for mandated screening, calls this a “wait to fail approach.”

DePoles’s organization, Decoding Dyslexia CA, is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 237, legislation that would mandate dyslexia screening for all California students in kindergarten through grade 2. Despite passing the state Senate unanimously in July of 2021, the Chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee refuses to bring it to vote in the Assembly. The Chair, Assembly member Patrick O’Donnell, has not explained his position and didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

The bill is opposed by two hard-to-dismiss camps of lobbyists: the California Teachers Association (CTA) and a coalition of advocates for English learners.

The teacher’s association says that mandating dyslexia screening both over-identifies students as at-risk for dyslexia and detracts from instructional time. In sum, their opposition letter reads, “SB 237 is unnecessary.” The association did not respond to numerous calls and emails requesting comment on the issue. 

The sponsors of SB 237 claim the screener only takes 15-30 minutes, therefore only negligibly impacting instructional time. They add that the screener will improve instruction by identifying students who need targeted intervention. DePole believes that by prompting early intervention, the screener will save future instructional time, as reading intervention takes longer as children get older.

As for over-identification, DePole points out that the screener doesn’t formally diagnose dyslexia. Instead, it identifies students at risk of falling behind in reading. For a full dyslexia diagnosis, a more comprehensive evaluation is required.

“There’s a misconception that by screening we’re somehow fast-tracking kids to special education or that we’re labeling them as having dyslexia, and that’s so not the purpose of universal screening” says DePole. “It really is identifying kids at risk early and targeting instruction.”

Earliness is key, advocates say, to intervening struggling readers. Ninety percent of children struggling with reading will meet grade-level expectations if they receive intervention by the end of first grade according to a 2008 Florida State University study.

The second opposition bloc, the coalition of English learner advocates, fears that universal dyslexia screening will misdiagnose English language learners as dyslexic and inappropriately narrow their reading curriculum. More than one million Californian public school students are English-language learners, according to the California Department of Education

Advocates for English learners may be more vocal in California than other states because of the state’s large immigrant population. These advocates also feel deja-vu: in 1973, a U.S. Commission of Civil Rights report concluded that Mexican-American students in Santa Barbara County were placed disproportionately frequently in special education and misdiagnosed with dyslexia.

“[SB 237] is a recipe for once again misserving and leaving English learners behind,” Martha Hernandez of Californians Together, an organization that advocates for English language learners, told .

Hernandez recognizes the importance of emphasizing literacy as an urgent equity problem but worries that dyslexia advocates are not considering English language learners enough in their solutions.

The bill’s plan to screen kindergarten, first, and second grade students is what particularly concerns Hernandez, as this is when many English language learners are first acquiring English skills. She says she would consider legislation that mandated screening if it was for later elementary years.

The author of the bill, Senator Portantino, says “it’s the right question to ask.” But he assures that the linguistic and cultural diversity of California classrooms was considered in the drafting of the bill, and safeguards have been built in to prevent disproportionately identifying English language learners as at-risk readers. UCSF’s Dyslexia center has designed screeners in Spanish and Mandarin, for example.

Depole agrees that the criticisms brought up by English-language-learner advocates opposing the bill have been addressed. She cites the California Guide for Educating English Learners with Disabilities as one example. The guidelines instruct schools in how to assess students whose primary language is not English.

Both Portantino and DePole also reference Texas as an example of a state that has a comparably large population of English language learners as California that has successfully implemented dyslexia screening. If Texas can do it, they say, why can’t California?

This isn’t the first time this debate has been had in the state legislature. In 2015, the opposers successfully defeated a nearly identical bill, AB 1369, raising the same concerns. But this time, the bill’s supporters have a powerful ally on their side: Governor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom, who has dyslexia, has taken up the cause as a personal part of his mission as governor. In 2020, he announced the California Dyslexia Initiative, which set aside $4 million for dyslexia research and teacher training. In 2021, he published a children’s book about a boy with dyslexia. With a budget surplus of $31 billion for 2022-23, advocates are confident that if SB 237 remains stalled in the assembly, Newsom can be convinced to use his budget to sponsor screening across the state, a move that would not require the legislature’s vote. 

Given the consequences of undiagnosed dyslexia—which include increased drop out, unemployment, and incarceration rates—supporters say screening will pay for itself in the long run. A white paper published by the UCSF Dyslexia Center and Boston Consulting Group estimated “dyslexia and its consequences” as costing $12 billion in California in 2020. This figure includes the $5 billion families with dyslexic children spend on private school, tutoring, evaluations, homeschooling, counseling, and technology. SB 237 proponents say that with early screening, identification, and intervention happening at schools, families will have a lesser need for these outside services. The success of dyslexic students will depend less on their families’ ability to afford outside testing and tutoring.

Decoding Dyslexia CA conducted a similar analysis, concluding that early identification and intervention can reduce the number of students placed in special education by up to 70 percent. This amounts to savings, as it costs three times as much to serve a student in special education compared with general education.

In some California school districts, frustrated parents and students are not waiting for state legislation—and schools are paying the price. Last year, four Berkeley Unified School District students with reading disorders won a lawsuit against the district for failing to identify their disabilities in a timely manner and failing to provide them necessary intervention and education, violating the Free Appropriate Public Education federal and state law.

The settlement includes federal court-ordered universal reading disability screening, quarterly progress assessments, reformed special education programs, and monitoring from “nationally-recognized outside consultants.” The district also must pay $350,000 in attorney fees.

Whether California students will be screened for dyslexia in the 2022-23 school year will likely be decided by June 15, the deadline for the state budget confirmation. Whether statewide dyslexia screening is included or not will depend upon the Chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee or Governor Gavin Newsom.

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