All Massachusetts school districts will be required to screen students’ individual reading ability and literacy skills twice a year in an effort to catch learning disabilities earlier.
The new requirement applies to all students from kindergarten through third grade and was unanimously approved Tuesday by members of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Schools will also be expected to develop plans to support students who fall below benchmarks for age-appropriate reading and literacy development and notify parents within 30 days of receiving screening results.
State Secretary of Education James Peyser said the universal screening process will not limit in-school evaluations for dyslexia or other learning disabilities.
“I don't believe the net effect will be more special ed referrals,” he said. “I think, in fact, if this works well, it may actually be fewer, earlier and less costly referrals through special education, which will not only support those students, but I think ultimately support all students who are trying to learn to read.”
Approximately 300 public school districts in the state already utilize state-approved screening tools to help catch learning disabilities. But some districts were using screening methods that were outdated — or weren’t using the right tools at all.
Education activist Edith Bazile, a former president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, said she was pleased with the change, although she said it is only a first step.
“Districts really need to focus on preventing reading failure,” she said. “The research informs us that 95% of the students can be taught to read in first grade. To look at the challenges in literacy, the question is why hasn't it been done already?”
Bazile said students who have different learning styles or are slower to learn to read risk getting placed in special education programs. Black and Latino students are also disproportionately routed into these programs.
“That is unfortunate, but it is what happens," she said.
The new policy could help by identifying reading problems earlier and getting those students help before they are placed in special education programs.
The statewide mandate will go into effect in July, 2023.