California sends mixed messages when it comes to serving dyslexic students.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is the most famous dyslexic political official in the country, even authoring a children’s book to raise awareness about the learning disability. And yet, California is one of 10 states that doesn’t require dyslexia screening for all children.
Education experts agree that early screening and intervention is critical for making sure students can read at grade level. But so far, state officials have done almost everything to combat dyslexia except mandate assessments for all students.
“It needs to happen,” said Lillian Duran, an education professor at the University of Oregon who has helped develop screening tools for dyslexia. “It seems so basic to me.”
Since 2015, legislators have funded dyslexia research, teacher training and the hiring of literacy coaches across California. But lawmakers failed to mandate universal dyslexia screening, running smack into opposition from the California Teachers Association.
The union argued that since teachers would do the screening, a universal mandate would take time away from the classroom. It also said universal screening may overly identify English learners, mistakenly placing them in special education.
The California Teachers Association did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In a letter of opposition to a bill in 2021, the union wrote that the bill “is unnecessary, leads to over identifying dyslexia in young students, mandates more testing, and jeopardizes the limited instructional time for students.”
In response, dyslexia experts double down on well-established research. Early detection actually prevents English learners — and really, all students — from ending up in special education when they don’t belong there.
While California lawmakers didn’t vote to buck the teachers union, they haven’t been afraid to spend taxpayer money on dyslexia screening. In the past two years, the state budget allocated $30 million to UC San Francisco’s Dyslexia Center, largely for the development of a new screening tool. Newsom began championing the center and served as its honorary chair in 2016 when he was still lieutenant governor.
“There’s an inadequate involvement of the health system in the way we support children with learning disabilities,” said Maria Luisa Gorno-Tempini, co-director of UCSF’s Dyslexia Center. “This is one of the first attempts at bridging science and education in a way that’s open sourced and open to all fields.”
Parents and advocates say funding dyslexia research and developing a new screener can all be good things, but without mandated universal screening more students will fall through the cracks and need more help with reading as they get older.
Omar Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the governor did not respond to questions about whether Newsom would support a mandate for universal screening. Instead, he listed more than $300 million in state investments made in the past two years to fund more reading coaches, new teacher credentialing requirements and teacher training.
The screening struggle
Rachel Levy, a Bay Area parent, fought for three years to get her son Dominic screened for dyslexia. He finally got the screening in third grade, which experts say could be too late to prevent long-term struggles with reading.
“We know how to screen students. We know how to get early intervention,” Levy said. “This to me is a solvable issue.”
Levy’s son Dominic, 16, still remembers what it felt like trying to read in first grade.
“It was like I was trying to memorize the shape of the word,” he said. “Even if I could read all the words, I just wouldn’t understand them.”
Dyslexia is a neurological condition that can make it hard for students to read and process information. But teachers can mitigate and even prevent the illiteracy stemming from dyslexia if they catch the signs early.
Levy, who also has dyslexia, said there’s much more research today on dyslexia than there was 30 years ago when she was first diagnosed. She said she was disappointed to find that California’s policies don’t align with the research around early screening.
“Unfortunately, most kids who are dyslexic end up in the special education system,” Levy said. “It’s because of a lack of screening.”
Soon after his screening in third grade, Dominic started receiving extra help for his dyslexia. He still works with an educational therapist on his reading, and he’s just about caught up to grade level in math. The biggest misconception about dyslexia, Dominic said, is that it makes you less intelligent or capable.
“Dyslexics are just as smart as other people,” he said. “They just learn in different ways.”
The first step to helping them learn is screening them in kindergarten or first grade.
“The goal is to find risk factors early,” said Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan, a speech-language pathologist and a professor at the University of Houston. “When you find them, the data you collect can really inform instruction.”
Cárdenas-Hagan’s home state of Texas passed a law in 1995 requiring universal screening. But she said it took several more years for teachers to be trained to use the tool. Her word of caution to California: Make sure teachers are not only comfortable with the tool but know how to use the results of the assessment to shape the way they teach individual students.
A homegrown screener
UC San Francisco’s screener, called Multitudes, will be available in English, Spanish and Mandarin. It’ll be free for all school districts.
Multitudes won’t be released to all districts at once. UCSF scientists launched a pilot at a dozen school districts last year, and they plan to expand to more districts this fall.
But experts and advocates say there’s no need to wait for it to mandate universal screenings. Educators can use a variety of already available screening tools in California, like they do in 40 other states. Texas and other states that have high percentages of English learners have Spanish screeners for dyslexia.
For English learners, the need for screening is especially urgent. Maria Ortiz is a Los Angeles parent of a dyslexic teenager who was also an English learner. She said she had to sue the Los Angeles Unified School District twice: once in 2016 to get extra help for her dyslexic daughter when she was in fourth grade and again in 2018 when those services were taken away. Ortiz said the district stopped giving her daughter additional help because her reading started improving.
“In the beginning they told me that my daughter was exaggerating,” Ortiz said. “They said everything would be normal later.”
California currently serves about 1.1 million English learners, just under a fifth of all public school students. For English learners, dyslexia can be confused with a lack of English proficiency. Opponents of universal screening, including the teachers association, argue that English learners will be misidentified as dyslexic simply because they can’t understand the language.
“Even the specialists were afraid that the problem might be because of the language barrier,” Ortiz said about her daughter’s case.
But experts say dyslexia presents a double threat to English learners: It stalls them from reading in their native language and impedes their ability to learn English.
And while there are some Spanish-language screeners, experts from Texas and California say there’s room for improvement. Current Spanish screeners penalize students who mix Spanish and English, they say.
Duran, who helped develop the Spanish version of Multitudes, said the new screener will be a better fit for how young bilingual students actually talk.
“Spanglish becomes its own communication that’s just as legitimate as Spanish on its own or English on its own,” Duran said. “It’s about the totality of languages a child might bring.”
Providing Multitudes free of cost is important to schools with large numbers of low-income students. Dyslexia screeners cost about $10 per student, so $30 million might actually be cost-effective considering California currently serves 1.3 million students in kindergarten through second grade. The tool could pay for itself in a few years. Although there are plenty of screeners already available, they can stretch the budgets of high-poverty schools and districts.
“The least funded schools can’t access them because of the cost,” Duran said.
In addition to the governor, another powerful state lawmaker, Glendale Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino, is dyslexic. While chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, authored legislation to require public schools to screen all students between kindergarten and second grade.
The bill received unanimous support in the Senate Education and Appropriations committees, but the bill died in the Assembly Education Committee. Portantino authored the same bill in 2020, but it never made it out of the state Senate.
“We should be leading the nation and not lagging behind,” Portantino said.
Portantino blamed the failure of his most recent bill on former Democratic Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, who chaired the Assembly Education Committee, for refusing to hear the bill.
“It’s no secret, Patrick O’Donnell was against teacher training,” Portantino said. “He thought our school districts and our educators didn’t have the capacity.”
O’Donnell did not respond to requests for comment. Since O’Donnell didn’t schedule a hearing on the bill, there is no record of him commenting about it at the time.
Portantino plans to author a nearly identical bill this year. He said he’s more hopeful because the Assembly Education Committee is now under the leadership of Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance. Muratsuchi would not comment on the potential fate of a dyslexia screening bill this year.
Levy now works as a professional advocate for parents of students with disabilities. She said without mandatory dyslexia screening, only parents who can afford to hire someone like her will be able to get the services they need for their children.
“A lot of high school kids are reading below third-grade level,” she said. “To me, that’s just heartbreaking.”