A bill in California’s state legislature would make dyslexia screening universal for young students in the state’s schools. Senate Bill 237 was introduced last spring but has faced several roadblocks in its passage, including opposition from the California Teachers Association. Although the legislation would certainly make dyslexia assessments—which, at the moment, are not mandatory—more widespread, specialists who work with English language learners (ELLs) worry that a universal screening for dyslexia could misidentify ELLs as being at risk for dyslexia.
Under SB 237, California students from kindergarten through second grade would undergo a mandatory dyslexia screening, starting in the 2022–2023 school year. If passed, the bill would give the State Board of Education until June 30 to create a list of approved dyslexia screening tools for local educational agencies to administer to their students.
Currently, dyslexia screenings are typically only administered to students when a teacher raises some sort of concern about their reading ability—this often occurs around third grade, though detecting risks for dyslexia earlier can allow students to achieve better learning outcomes.
However, if dyslexia screenings are mainly geared toward native English-speaking children, advocates argue that ELLs will be left behind. While the language of SB 237 designates that dyslexia screenings ought to be “evidence-based” and “culturally, linguistically, and developmentally appropriate,” a report from EdSource outlined concerns from several skeptics, who believe the bill could do more harm than good, at least for ELLs.
“As a reading specialist, I think we need to exercise extreme caution so as to not create a policy that is potentially detrimental to historically marginalized groups of students,” said Lillie Ruvalcaba, a teacher in Los Angeles County who works with ELLs.
Historically, students who don’t speak English as a native language have been disproportionately placed in special education programs, hence the cause for concern.
However, state-funded research will hopefully develop assessments that are suitable for ELLs as well. Governor Gavin Newsom—who has dyslexia himself—has placed a strong emphasis on dyslexia and reading education during his tenure as governor. Earlier this year, his proposed budget set aside about $10 million for dyslexia research at the University of California, San Francisco. This research will include the development of dyslexia screenings for young children whose primary language is English, Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese. Still, these screenings wouldn’t account for ELLs whose primary language is one of the several other languages spoken widely throughout the state. However, supporters of the bill note that screenings would not necessarily diagnose children with dyslexia but rather identify students who may need additional help in literacy development.