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State education board approves literacy screening mandate to detect learning disabilities

Through the new regulation, schools will need to create plans to support students who are significantly below the relevant benchmarks for age-appropriate typical development and literacy skills.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

In an attempt to catch learning disabilities at earlier ages, all Massachusetts school districts now will be required to assess a students’ reading ability and progress in literacy skills twice a year.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday unanimously approved the mandatory literacy screenings from kindergarten through at least third grade. The mandate goes into effect next July.

During Tuesday’s meeting, state Secretary of Education James Peyser explained the universal screening process will not interfere with any immediate evaluations for dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but could work to catch any difficulties sooner.

The screenings will allow schools to provide interventions in the general classroom to struggling young readers without the need for a special education referral, Peyser said. But they also will provide educators the ability to more quickly identify students “who do need one in order to make sure they get the services they deserve when they deserve them.”

“I think, in fact, if this works well, it may actually be fewer, earlier, and less costly referrals through special education,” Peyser said. “Which will not only support those students, but I think ultimately support all students who are trying to learn to read.”


Through the new regulation, schools will also need to create plans to support students who are significantly below the relevant benchmarks for age-appropriate typical development and literacy skills, and to inform students’ parents or guardians within 30 days of the screening result.

Tom Scott, executive director for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the mandate elevates the expectation that “early literacy is so significant, a key element to a student’s later success in school.”

“I think this is a desire to do everything reasonably possible during those critical years to identify students who may need interventions, may need supports, and I think that’s really the objective here,” Scott said. “I think it’s an attempt to try to do everything reasonably possible to catch children at a young age level in terms of their literacy skills.”


Early literacy screening has been common in Massachusetts elementary schools; about 300 Massachusetts public school districts use state-approved screening tools that help detect learning difficulties. However, board materials the department’s staff provided to the members indicate that some districts appeared to use screeners that were out-of-date or weren’t using the appropriate screening tools at all.

During Tuesday’s meeting, education leaders said they do not have any metrics to compare schools that have been doing screenings and districts that are not, but believe this regulation provides an opportunity to look at how that can change in the department.

“There are some efforts underway right now for us to understand what districts are using high quality instructional materials, for example, so that will be a piece of the equation,” said Deputy Commissioner Russell Johnston. “There will also be an opportunity for districts to reflect as well on what’s working, what’s not, so that they can see the changes that they need to see for their students as well.”

The state has awarded over $471,955 in grant funding to 27 school districts in the last 18 months to support early literacy screening assessment purchases. It plans to offer a similar grant in the current school year to “support schools that do not yet have an appropriate screening measure in place or are in need of training,” according to board documents.


Adria Watson can be reached at Follow her @adriarwatson.