Will a Universal Dyslexia Screening Test Mislabel California’s English Learners?


Kindergarten students at Aspire Inskeep Academy in south Los Angeles work in groups during a reading session.

In the push to screen all California high school students for dyslexia, some English learners worry they will be mislabeled, making it difficult for them to become fluent in the language.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has given millions to Dyslexia Research at the University of California, San Francisco over the past two years to create screening tests in multiple languages ​​that signal whether a child is at risk of dyslexia. A bill from state lawmakers would require all kindergarten, first-graders and second-graders to be screened for dyslexia beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

But the idea of ​​a universal dyslexia screening test worries some teachers and researchers committed to helping English learners. They say tests need to be carefully designed to avoid misdiagnosing students learning English.

“As a reading specialist, I think we must exercise extreme caution not to develop policies that are potentially prejudicial to historically marginalized groups of students,” said Lillie Ruvalcaba, special assignment English language teacher for the Mountain View School District in Los Angeles County. “As a kid learning English, I say slower.”

Currently, dyslexia assessments are not mandatory. Schools often test students for dyslexia only when parents or teachers think they may have one, and often these tests are not administered until third grade or older.

Advocates of English learners say that any screening needs to be designed with students’ native languages ​​and cultures in mind. Typically, students identified as at risk for dyslexia are drawn out of the classroom to work with a reading specialist. Proponents say reading interventions are needed for students learning English as a second language specially designed for her.

“Broad implementation of reading programs for native English speakers without considering effective literacy for aspiring bilinguals — that’s a recipe to once again mis-serve and leave English learners behind,” said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of organizations committed to helping focus on improving education for English learners.

More than 1 million learn English in California public schools. The vast majority – 82% – speak Spanish, 2% speak Vietnamese, 2% speak Mandarin, 1.5% speak Arabic, followed by at least 70 other languages, the authorities said California Department of Education.

research shows that some English learners are inappropriately placed in special education classes. At the same time, many English learners with learning disabilities are identified later than their English-speaking peers.

Hernandez and many others who oppose screening are not yet familiar with the assessment tools developed in English, Spanish and Mandarin from UCSF. The tools were funded in part by the state of California, and UCSF plans to make them available to all school districts free of charge. If the legislature required all counties to screen students for dyslexia, that would be one tool that could be used.

Lillian Durán, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon, is leading the UCSF team in creating the tool in Spanish.

“Overall, what we are trying to do is provide teachers with more meaningful information from these assessments. I think reviews end up getting a bad rap because they’ve historically provided very little data that’s really helpful,” Durán said.

Durán, who grew up in San Francisco, said the review is being done in Spanish, not just translated from English. For example, the measure includes common words in Spanish-language children’s books and curriculum, not just words translated from the English tool. It also includes a measure of how well the child can read syllables, because when a child learns to read in Spanish, they would learn to read syllables rather than individual letter sounds.

She said it’s important to remember that tests like this aren’t used to diagnose children with dyslexia, but to indicate which students may need additional reading help.

Durán says she hopes to hold focus groups with teachers, students, administrators and advocates for English learners during the spring and summer.

“I really want to make sure that the measures are reviewed to make sure they meet the needs of the community,” Durán said.

For some educators, the concern that students who speak languages ​​other than English could be misdiagnosed with a learning disability stems from history.

Hernandez has firsthand experience of English learners being mislabeled as dyslexic. In the late 1970s, she taught at a school in Santa Barbara County’s Goleta Union School District, where about half of the students in their combined fifth and sixth grades were classified as dyslexic. All were English learners. Over time, she found that most of her students did not have dyslexia, but were lagging behind in reading because they had not received proper instruction in English language development.

A Report 1973 The California Advisory Committee of the United States Civil Rights Commission found that Mexican-Americans were disproportionately placed in special education classes in Santa Barbara County at the time. A letter from a school psychologist accompanying the report justified the disproportionate dyslexia diagnosis by saying it was likely inherited from the children’s parents, who must have “drawn” themselves to farm labor jobs because of their dyslexia.

Ruvalcaba said that in recent years she herself has seen schools misdiagnose children with disabilities because they are learning English as a second or third language.

“We have seen that this mislabeling often discourages children from going to school. It delays their reclassification to “fluent English” because they’re not in the classroom learning the content or vocabulary they need to pass the ELPAC,” Ruvalcaba said. The ELPAC is the English Language Proficiency Assessment of California, a test that all English learners must take each year until they are deemed fluent in English.

Dozens of other federal states are already testing kindergarten children and first graders for signs of dyslexia. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a bilingual speech and language pathologist and President of the Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas. She helped develop a test used in Texas to identify reading problems in Spanish called Tejas Lee (Texas reads).

“In Texas, we have not seen over-identification of children with special educational needs or dyslexia because they are learning English. That just wasn’t the case from 1998 to the present,” Cardenas-Hagan said.

Cardenas-Hagan says screening tools can help identify potential problems. For example, if a child who speaks Spanish at home and was taught Spanish at school does not recognize the letter sounds in Spanish, this may indicate dyslexia.

“If we don’t measure these children and don’t do anything, they will go without treatment,” Cardenas-Hagan said.

Cárdenas-Hagan said she was recently asked to research a 17-year-old college student who had moved to Texas from California and suffered from dyslexia that was never identified.

“By this point, the kid is feeling really bad about himself. You’re discouraged, aren’t you? Their confidence is really shattered and they don’t enjoy school and study because they can’t read,” Cardenas-Hagan said.

Some experts in special education for children who speak languages ​​other than English say the solution is more complex than a screening tool.

“Some places are over-identified and others under-identified. Some are reluctant to do anything and others are too eager,” said Cristina Sánchez-López, senior associate at Paridad Education Consulting. “There are some districts that say, ‘They’re learning English, so we’ll just give them time,'” while others rely on screening tools without looking at the bigger picture, she said.

Sánchez-López co-authored a book with speech-language pathologist Theresa Young that focuses on effective teaching for multilingual learners with special educational needs. Both advocate a different approach, one in which school districts bring together experts in special education and experts in teaching bilingual children. They recommend analyzing data in a larger context, including the language children speak at home, the language they are learning, and the type of reading and English classes they receive.

“As speech-language pathologists, we all see screening data, but unless I have someone at the table who has a bilingual and ESL lens and also understands the data, we tend to interpret those screeners from a monolingual lens,” Young said.

Instead of a universal screening test, Ruvalcaba and others would prefer California to invest in better education for teachers to learn how to teach reading, how to help students who are struggling to read, and how best to teach students Those who are bilingual in English and German will be their mother tongues.

“In most other states, you can major in pedagogy, which means you have four or five classes teaching literacy,” said Allison Briceño, associate professor and coordinator of the Reading and Literacy Leadership Credential and Master’s Program at San Jose State University Department of Teacher Education. “I taught in one of these programs, and what my prospective teachers could do was much more polished than here in California, where they often only get one semester of literacy.”

Ruvalcaba agrees. She didn’t feel ready to help children who were having trouble learning to read until she joined a program called Descubriendo la lectura, or Reading Recovery, which helped her learn effective strategies to help children learn to read in Spanish and English. She applied the strategies she learned to work with first graders who had not yet learned to recognize letters, getting them to grade level within 10 to 12 weeks. She said other teachers are eager to learn the strategies from her.

“If you’re going to spend money, don’t give me a universal screener. I’m already doing enough tests in my classroom,” Ruvalcaba said. “If you want to spend money making California education more valuable, progressive and effective, spend that money teaching teachers how to implement effective strategies.”

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