Legislation authored to help young studentsNovember 8, 2018
By LEANN BURKE
Authoring Senate Enrolled Act 217 was personal for State Sen. Erin Houchin.
SEA 217, which passed during Indiana’s 2018 legislative session, requires Indiana’s public and charter schools to screen kindergarten, first- and second-grade students for dyslexia beginning in the 2019-20 school year.
Houchin authored the bill after attempting to find the source of her son’s struggles with reading in his first few years of school. Finally, in third grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, received individualized instruction and began to thrive in school.
“My son went from not being able to read or spell to getting 100 percent on spelling tests,” Houchin said. “[The difference in] his self-confidence is night and day. I want that for all kids.”
According to statistics compiled by the Dyslexia Center of Utah, about 20 percent of students have a language-based learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. According to the center, dyslexia is a learning disability that involves “difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition” and “poor spelling and decoding abilities.”
With SEA 217, Houchin hopes schools will be able to identify those students sooner and get them the help they need to be successful at a younger age.
To draft the legislation, Houchin said, she looked at what other states are doing, and found that several screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten through second grade. That seemed like a good idea for Indiana, too.
Under SEA 217, schools will be required to use reading screenings that target indicators of dyslexia, including skills such as phonological and phonemic awareness, sound symbol recognition, alphabet knowledge and decoding skills, according to a guidance issued by the Indiana Department of Education.
“Reading is a huge skill,” said Tammy Hurm, assistant director of the Exceptional Children’s Co-Op, which serves area special education students. “You have to break it up into sub skills to really find where students are struggling.”
Students determined to be at risk during the initial screening will then take a Level 1 dyslexia screening, and, if needed, a Level 2 dyslexia screening. From there, educators will design individualized instruction to help struggling students overcome their challenges.
The process will look similar to what schools are already doing, as they already use various universal screenings to evaluate students’ reading abilities and to look for indicators of several learning challenges, including dyslexia. Educators also already design individualized learning plans for students who need extra supports.
“It won’t be a major adjustment for us,” said Dan Scherry, superintendent of North Spencer Schools.
The crux of the law comes down to local school officials making sure the screenings they have in place comply with the new law, and making sure they staff an authorized reading specialist trained in dyslexia, as required by the law.
That’s where the Exceptional Children’s Co-Op can help.
The co-op employs reading diagnosticians who meet the law’s requirements, and the law will allow schools to contract with co-ops to share services. If local schools choose to go that route, Hurm said, the diagnosticians will be a resource schools can use as they screen their students and identify interventions to address their challenges.
Although the additional screenings can help identify struggling students, they won’t necessarily help diagnose dyslexia, Hurm said, as a diagnosis must come from a medical doctor, not an educator. Once the screenings are complete, educators share the results with parents. From there, it’s up to the parents whether or not to seek a medical diagnosis.
Hurm also cautioned against assuming that a student has dyslexia just because they show indicators on a screening.
“Lots of children have reading issues,” Hurm said. “But they don’t all have dyslexia.”
Houchin’s main goal with SEA 217 was to put additional safeguards in place to make sure students who need help don’t fall through the cracks. In general, educators think the law will do that.
“I think it’s going to add another layer of screening to make sure we aren’t missing any learning difficulties along the way,” said Brenda Ferguson, principal of Dubois and Celestine elementary schools.
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