Thursday, February 14, 2013

Testimony - Fiscal impact of reading bill

To: Senate Ways and Means Committee
Re:  SSB 5237 - Establishing accountability for student performance in reading 
Position: CONCERNS; recommendations; supportive of intent
Attached: Letters of testimony

Dear Chairman Hill and Senators,

Screening and Support for Struggling Readers is one of Washington State PTA’s legislative priorities, and I wanted to thank you for hearing this bill and considering the tremendous financial implications surrounding our failure to reach and teach all of our potential readers.

We do have concerns with the bill as written, especially any sort of forced grade retention. Our understanding of the intent, however, is to assert accountability around intervention. That is, schools need to be held accountable for understanding the learning needs of their students and providing appropriate instruction and interventions.  We strongly support this concept and we assert the state has a fiscal interest in ensuring schools use research- and evidence-based literacy curriculum and interventions.

Most children (about 60 percent) find learning to read challenging and their success is tied directly to the efficacy of instruction. Of those, 20-30 percent will find reading to be remarkably difficult and how these children are taught to read is critical to their success. Please consider:

  • The state has developed a great reading model based on the landmark work of the National Reading Panel. Essentially, you can teach reading in a way that most kids will learn, or you can opt for a way in which only some kids learn. That state model supports the former and all schools should be using it. They are not.  
  • Researchers have identified how to help children with dyslexia and other learning disorders “decode.” All K-3 educators should be familiar with the work and techniques, and especially our reading specialists and elementary school principals. They are not.

Washington State PTA has been engaged on this issue for three years now. Our advocacy approach has been developed in partnership between the families of students struggling to read and the specialists who are successfully helping them. You can read our position (and supporting references) here.

We do recommend an approach that emphasizes instruction, screening and educator training.
  • We ask that you consider revising the bill to require use of evidence-based curriculum that emphasizes phonological awareness and phonemic instruction as well as fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The state’s reading model already supports this.
  • We also ask that the state fund and require biannual phonological-awareness screenings.  These are quick and objective; results should be included, and explained, on report cards.
These two steps build on the work of WaKIDS and support a continuum of effective, student-centered early learning pre-K to grade 3.

What we like:

We support SSB 5237’s provisions for professional development and believe that in the long run it will pay for itself, but only if the training is grounded in the science of reading and only if it develops the capacity of educators to use data to guide instruction.

We also support increasing access to quality preschool such as ECEAP; it will be especially helpful for children from language-poor environments and for children identified early with special needs. But please keep in mind the common trait of children who find reading remarkably difficult is not lack of preschool. Rather, research suggests it is a primary weakness in phonological and phonemic awareness. It’s the way the kids’ brains are wired and whether they can differentiate the sounds of letters. This cuts across class and culture and may not manifest until the K-3 years. Objective, repeat screening in the K-3 years is important.

What we worry about:

We are concerned with having the state mandate retention. A child with a reading disorder is not cognitively impaired and may in fact be highly capable. Mandated retention could create a new set of issues to address. What is essential is that these learners have been identified and that appropriate interventions are in place.
  • We think the state should focus its efforts on ensuring appropriate, evidence-based reading instruction is used in all classrooms;
  • Ensuring schools are screening twice a year in K-3;
  • And implementing tiered, evidence-based interventions as necessary.
We encourage you to review the results of the state’s dyslexia pilot in 2009, which tested research-based curriculum in eight schools. Each of the participating classrooms at these schools implemented phonological awareness screenings and research-based core literacy. According to the state superintendent’s office, “40 percent of the students (with low screening scores) who participated in the dyslexia pilot passed the reading section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Only 17 percent of these same students had met the WASL reading standard before the pilot.” The state can take effective steps that don’t require mandated grade retention.

High cost of not acting

We see a certain story repeat in our schools and it is heartbreaking. Children with phonological and phonemic-awareness issues are often not identified; they struggle to read and especially struggle with self-esteem. They don’t understand why they don’t “get it.” And even when these children are identified and moved into special education, the schools do not necessarily give them appropriate or effective instruction.  Other children never even qualify for services. Reading disorders fall on spectrum; it is not a question of can or cannot read but to what degree children struggle. All struggling readers need support, even those who just barely meet “basic” on the state assessments.

As one PTA member says in an attached letter, reading should be low-hanging fruit. Best practices have been identified at that national and state level. They are not being implemented in any consistent manner at the local level. And (perhaps most disturbing) evidence-based reading instruction is not being universally taught in our schools of education.

Research tells us 95 percent of all children, regardless of their demographics, can learn to read using evidence-based, direct, explicit and systematic instruction. Yet Washington’s public schools are failing to teach about 30 percent of our children to read – even though the state provides an excellent research-based model.

The fiscal implications? There are about 138,000 special education students in Washington State, with a total annual expenditure of well over a billion dollars. About 85 percent of these students have a “primary learning disability” in reading and language processing. We know that many of these students would succeed in a general education classroom using effective, evidence-based curriculum. No pull outs would be necessary.

As for the larger societal costs: 85 percent of all juvenile offenders are either functionally or marginally illiterate; 70 percent of prisoners in state and federal systems can be classified as illiterate, and 43 percent of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty.

Attached is testimony given by parents and students to the Lake Washington School District Board of Directors. You won’t find any fiscal breakdowns, but you will gain insight on how even a high-functioning, well-supported school district failed to meet the needs of struggling readers.

Given the consequences for children, making sure our schools are teaching all students appropriately, screening for phonological awareness and following through with effective intervention seems fiscally prudent. While we would make changes to this legislation, we support the underlying intent and thank you for taking up this issue.

 Ramona Hattendorf
Government relations coordinator
Washington State PTA

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