Missouri lawmakers in 2016 passed a law that requires the state’s 518 school districts to screen students in kindergarten through third grade for being at risk for dyslexia, a severe reading disability.

The most common learning disability, dyslexia involves difficulty with spelling, reading and decoding abilities, but it does not affect general intelligence.

At the time it passed, the law was hailed as a breakthrough, placing Missouri among 28 other states that had passed measures to identify and help young children struggling with dyslexia. The measure also promotes dyslexia training for teachers and provides recommendations and supports for students identified as dyslexic.

Erica Lembke, who is part of the 21-member dyslexia task force established by the law, described the state-mandated screening as a victory for students, parents and educators.

“To me, it’s a great example of how parents and families can push legislation forward,” Lembke told Education Week magazine in a February 2018 story.

The law required the first screenings of Missouri children in kindergarten through third grade to take place during the 2018-19 school year. But now, after seeing the wide variation of screening scores across the state, and even between neighboring districts, it is becoming clear to school officials that the state law gives districts immense latitude regarding who they must test and how – to the point that district-to-district comparisons are difficult to make.

“It’s almost impossible,” Kim Stuckey with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said of trying to compare districts. Stuckey is the dyslexia specialist charged with collecting data for DESE.

Bryan Painter, Kirkwood School District’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, agrees with Stuckey.

“When DESE put this legislation in place, it was so loose and schools could look at things so differently and use whatever measures they might have, we said we’re going to stick with ones we’re using because it meets our needs internally,” he said.

On average, between 15 and 20% of any school population would be expected to test as at-risk for dyslexia. The problem, however, is that percentages among districts vary widely, and school administrators say they are not an accurate representation of how many students are struggling with dyslexia.

Stuckey acknowledged that glitches in data collection were expected during the first year of the screenings.

“Maybe next year we’ll get a better sense of ‘true’ numbers,” she said. “We’re working out the kinks. This year is not going to be a template for the future.”

Case in point: The Kirkwood School District, where 53.6 percent of the kids – 959 out of 1,788 – who were screened last year were identified as at risk for dyslexia according to DESE’s data. Painter said the percentage, which was drawn from a test administered on a national testing platform called Fastbridge, is not a true reflection of how many Kirkwood students are at risk for dyslexia.

By the district’s measurements, the actual number of Kirkwood students screened and found to be at risk for dyslexia is 26.2 percent, according to Painter.

“We have our own kind of benchmarks and thresholds to determine along with other data,” he said. “We care much more about the individual students behind the numbers.”

Other Districts

Lindbergh Schools finds its district in a very similar situation to Kirkwood. In Lindbergh Schools, the state results showed that 42% of the district’s students in kindergarten through third grade who were tested last year are at risk for dyslexia.

Tara Sparks, the district’s chief academic officer, said she was surprised by that number “to the degree that I feel that was not the reality we’re seeing in class.”

Sparks said the actual percentage of at-risk students she saw, based on averages for the district’s six grade schools, was around 38%.

In an example of how much the percentages can vary, in the Webster Groves School District, the state data shows that 4.6 percent of the children – 63 out of 1,354 – who were screened last year were identified as at risk for dyslexia.

Kristin Denbow, the Webster Groves School District’s assistant superintendent for learning, said she was not surprised to hear of the wide variations in screening scores among Missouri school districts.

“I think you have to look at these numbers very, very critically – it’s apples and oranges,” she said. “If you’re looking at a screener, a screener might be a very, very wide net, and they’re capturing all kinds of kids who might have even the slightest hint of a reading difficulty.”

Denbow said Webster complied with the state-mandated screening by devising a customized testing system based on a variety of components.

Always Trying To Get Better

For Casey Zuniga, the mother of a child diagnosed with dyslexia who attends middle school in Kirkwood, the district’s relatively large percentage of students flagged as at risk for dyslexia indicates problems. The figures also underscore the challenges her child has faced in getting necessary tutoring.

“The school district is doing the minimum amount you can do for your child because you trust what you say is correct,” Zuniga said. “Something is wrong with the curriculum they are using in the Kirkwood School District.”

But Painter, Kirkwood’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, disagreed. He said the district has ramped up its literacy curriculum over the past five years, with a focus on phonics and phonemic awareness.

“Can we get better?” he said. “Absolutely. We’re always trying to get better.”