Colorado’s dyslexia screening bill likely dead in face of opposition from education groups

A student works on letter sounds, using a board with magnetic letters at a circular table.
Colorado won’t get a dyslexia screening law this year. (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)

A bill introduced this month would have fulfilled a longtime dream of advocates for dyslexic children — universal screening for the learning disability so more Colorado students could get the reading help they need. 

But before the bill even got a hearing, a key lawmaker signaled it won’t move forward after opposition from some educators and state education groups. That means most young students in the state won’t be screened for dyslexia. 

Senate Education Committee Chair Janet Buckner said Thursday by text message that the bill would likely be postponed indefinitely — meaning it will die.

Buckner, who has an adult daughter with dyslexia, said she understands parents’ frustration, but wants to look at existing reading laws to see how they’re working before tackling a dyslexia screening bill. 

Advocates for children with dyslexia have pushed for mandatory school-based dyslexia screening in Colorado for years without success. They say the early elementary reading assessments approved by the state aren’t all designed to detect everyone at risk for the learning disability, which means young students fall through the cracks at a time when extra help would do the most good.

But opponents of the bill say it would impose too many requirements as schools continue to recover from pandemic-era disruptions and work to comply with other recent reading-related laws. 

Some Colorado school districts, including Boulder Valley and LaVeta, already screen all children in certain grades for dyslexia. The Denver district, Colorado’s largest, recently passed a policy to screen all students for dyslexia by the end of second grade, but leaders there said they wanted to see what happens with the screening bill before hammering out details.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, about 15% to 20% of the population has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it hard to identify speech sounds, decode words, and spell them. With the right instruction, students with dyslexia can do as well as their peers in school.

More than three dozen states already mandate dyslexia screening. 

The screening bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Faith Winter and Kyle Mullica, would require schools to screen all students in kindergarten through third grade for dyslexia and other reading problems starting in 2024-25. It would also require screening for preschoolers in school-based classrooms, as well as fourth through 12th grade students who haven’t previously been screened for dyslexia in Colorado, have difficulty reading, or whose parents request it. The bill would also require extra help for students flagged by the screening and that parents be notified about the results. 

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Lori Cooper, assistant superintendent for student achievement in the Fountain-Fort Carson school district, said she worries the proposed requirements for dyslexia screening and intervention will worsen teacher shortages. 

“It is just way above and beyond what is needed,” she said. “We just have to stop piling on for teachers. We’re not going to have any left.” 

Lindsay Drakos, a co-chair of the statewide dyslexia advocacy group COKID and one of the people who helped shape the bill, said the legislation isn’t meant to add more screening to most teachers’ plates, but rather to ensure they’re using the right screening tools — those that will simultaneously satisfy current state reading rules and identify kids at risk for dyslexia. 

“Prevention is always more cost effective than reaction,” she said. 

Some struggling readers get missed

Colorado’s main reading law already requires schools to identify and help students in kindergarten through third grade who are far behind in reading. Teachers must create special reading plans for those students and schools get extra state funding to execute the plans. 

About 20% of K-3 students in Colorado have such plans. 

The problem is that the reading law doesn’t target all children reading below grade level, just those doing the worst. That means some students with reading problems, including some with dyslexia, fall through the cracks year after year.

Michelle Qazi, the Boulder Valley district’s literacy director, said the district saw signs of this phenomenon after it began a dyslexia screening pilot program for kindergartners at some elementary schools two years ago. About 60% of children who were flagged as having risk factors for dyslexia didn’t qualify for special reading plans because their scores on state-approved assessments were too high. 

“That is why … we have to screen every single student [for dyslexia] in the target grade level,” she said. “Otherwise we will miss a lot of students.” 

Next week, Boulder Valley will screen all 1,666 of its kindergarteners for dyslexia — marking the expansion of the pilot program to a districtwide effort. 

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Qazi, who is part of the state’s Dyslexia Working Group, said the district’s pilot screening program proved that dyslexia screening and the follow-up support for kids who have risk factors is doable.

She said statewide dyslexia screening would be a “giant step forward.” 

Ombudsman is a sore spot

One component of the dyslexia screening bill that likely helped sink it called for the creation of an independent state ombudsman to examine state reading laws and create a grievance process for parents. 

Buckner, along with bill supporters and opponents, all reported that several education groups, including the Colorado Education Association — the state’s main teachers union — and the Colorado Association of School Executives, were offended by a provision that said the ombudsman’s office should have no conflicts of interest or former alliances with those groups. 

Cooper, president of the Colorado Association of School Executives coordinating council, said the ombudsman part of the bill was “absolutely insulting” and unnecessary.  

Drakos said the goal of that provision was to ensure the ombudsman would put student needs first without being swayed by adult opinions, but acknowledged that the wording sounded more harsh than was intended. 

 Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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