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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Early literacy screening a ‘starting point’ for educators

Special-education teacher Maddie Smith worked on assessing the reading and spelling levels of a 3rd-grade student at the Rafael Hernández Dual Language K-8 School in Roxbury.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

In a small room at the Rafael Hernández Dual Language K-8 School, Maddie Smith carefully enunciated the sound of every letter in “shut,” guiding a young student who stumbled over the word during a spelling and reading assessment.

“It’s not a test,” she reassured the third-grader. “We just want to see how we can help you.”

As they went through various activities that included sounding out letters, spelling words, and reading aloud short stories, Smith used the literacy screening to gauge the student’s reading, writing, and comprehension ability.

“Using these screeners helps us to understand what kids are not able to decode, and decoding is the most important part of reading,” said Smith, a special-education teacher at the Rafael Hernández School, which conducts screenings in both English and Spanish. “So if we can make sure that all kids have the building blocks they need to be successful readers, then we’re helping them to be functioning adults in society.”

A new state policy aims to identify additional support that students need to succeed with reading and writing. Starting next July, all Massachusetts school districts must assess a student’s progress in literacy skills twice a year in kindergarten through at least third grade in an attempt to catch learning disabilities at earlier ages. The mandate is not expected to interfere with any immediate evaluations for dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but could work to catch any difficulties sooner.

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Educators use such screeners to modify and individualize lessons for students.

“These screeners are just giving us a starting point,” said Sandy Lopez, a third-grade teacher at the school.

Early literacy interventions and support will be critical as the nation faces massive learning losses among students: More students this year failed to meet statewide requirements for reading and writing on the state MCAS exams, and national reading scores fell on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests due to pandemic-related learning disruptions.

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“The earliest grade that we have MCAS results, indicating that a child may be struggling in reading, is third grade but we don’t have to wait that long to know,” said Katherine Tarca, director of literacy and humanities for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “A school can use a screening assessment and know years earlier, as early as kindergarten, that a child is experiencing difficulty in reading or is showing some signs that they might experience difficulty in the future, and intervention can happen all through those kindergarten, first-, and second-grade years.”

The mandate also could help districts avoid a so-called wait-to-fail situation, in which a school may not recognize a child is struggling with reading until they are in third or fourth grades, resulting in failure to meet grade-level expectations on state exams or grade-level reading skills, Tarca said. Such an approach can be devastating to students’ academic progress.

“It’s going to be all the more difficult, if not impossible, to get the child to the levels of academic achievement that they were capable of, that they would have reached, if the intervention had happened sooner,” Tarca said.

Early intervention would have made an enormous difference for 15-year-old Leiya, said her mom, Fabienne Eliacin. Leiya struggled with remembering sounds, letters, and colors as a young child. She was screened in pre-kindergarten, but as the youngest student in her class, Gardner Pilot Academy educators decided to wait and monitor her progress before providing learning supports, Eliacin said.

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She was held back in first grade and Eliacin placed her daughter in various schools, and hired a private reading tutor to help. Leiya eventually received additional support with reading in fifth grade, but Eliacin bemoans the lost years in which her daughter could have received the help she needed.

“It [wasn’t] until she was in middle school, her teacher really worked with her one-on-one,” she said. “She’s a smart kid. She’s reading, she’s still struggling, but she has that confidence that she didn’t have, and she’s not the only one. I know so many other kids going through the same thing.”

The state adoption of the new policy aims to rectify that. About 300 public school districts were using state-approved screening tools to help detect learning disabilities, but others use out-of-date methods or no appropriate tools at all.

Early literacy screenings now will fall under the state’s special-education regulations, translating into more compliance oversight.

Some district leaders, however, have raised concerns about whether they will get state training, how they’ll put the new screenings into practice, and how much new programs may cost, according to Tom Scott, the state’s Association of School Superintendents executive director.

Maddie Smith, a special-education teacher at the Rafael Hernández Dual Language K-8 School in Roxbury, said using screeners helps educators "understand what kids are not able to decode, and decoding is the most important part of reading."Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

While many districts pay the costs out-of-pocket or are tapping federal relief funds, the state awarded about $471,955 in grant funding to 27 school districts in the last 18 months to support early literacy screening assessment purchases and training. It plans to offer a similar grant in the current school year but the state doesn’t yet know how much the grants will total.

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Drew Echelson, Boston Public Schools chief of schools and accountability, said he wants to see the state not only act on the screenings, but provide more guidance to districts on specific interventions that “support closing reading gaps across the Commonwealth.”

BPS, for example, screens students three times in kindergarten through second grade and provides custom intervention.

At Dedham Public Schools, educators use one of the state-approved screeners, EarlyBird, which provides an assessment of students’ reading levels and gives educators individualized literacy exercises to help students improve in certain areas.

“If we’re teaching kids letter sounds, and they can’t auditorily discriminate them, we have to fix that before we start giving them letters, and making sure that the interventions that we’re using are married to good oral language, and connected text,” said Sara Stetson, assistant superintendent for student services in Dedham. “It really requires a partnership between general education and special education to do it correctly.”


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.