State News

After pushback from education orgs, Senate edits literacy screening bill


By Holly Sullivan, Community News Service 

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

The Senate Committee on Education is revising a bill that aims to improve Vermont’s literacy rate — a number that’s been steadily declining for years.

The changes address problems prompted by education officials who said the bill’s language is too limiting and would present problems for schools required to implement them.

“I think the reasoning was just that, [with] this bill, we’re hoping to capture all students that have any kind of learning deficiency or just struggling readers,” Sen. Martine Gulick, D-Chittenden Central said. 

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association said to committee members Jan. 10 that he agrees with S.204’s goals, but he takes issue with some of its phrasing. 

Committee members walked through some potential changes during a Feb. 9. meeting, including getting rid of specific language about follow-ups to literacy screenings, removing language that would require the Agency of Education to approve literacy screeners and altering the state’s definition of an inadequate literacy test. 

Children advocacy groups, The Vermont Early Childhood Advocacy Alliance VT,  Let’s Grow Kids’ and Voices for VT Kids, declined requests for comment from Community News Service.  

If screenings revealed a potential reading deficiency in a student, S.204 would require all public and approved independent schools to provide literacy screenings and interventions approved by the Agency of Education. The bill is an attempt to support struggling readers early in their education, Gulick said.

“It really focuses on Kindergarten to Grade 3,” she said. “And why Kindergarten to Grade 3 is important is because that’s when you’re learning to read, and after grade three, you’re actually using reading to learn. And so if by that point you haven’t learned how to read, it’s really going to start setting you back.”

Nichols said the language in the bill is too restrictive, specifically when it refers to “reading specialists,” who would teach the students, in that some literacy teachers could be deemed unqualified under that language.

Nichols also noted S.204’s language regarding literacy screeners themselves could result in ineffective and/or corrupt programs under the bill’s guidelines. 

“Let’s be very careful about prescribing anything that would be considered curriculum or requiring a certain program to be used,” he told committee members, adding after, “There are a ton of commercial for-profit groups out there that sell screening programs, curriculum packages, make billions of dollars, who  claim to be able to produce better reading results and often develop their own paid-for research that supports their product.”

Other education specialists representing the Vermont Superintendent Association, Vermont Agency of Education and The Union Of Vermont Educators made suggested changes to the bill’s language, arguing they’re too strict. 

Most of the concern boils down to how the new guidelines could harm schools that are currently using their own screenings and intervention methods, because it would force them to rework their systems if they don’t align with the bill’s language, Gwen Carmoli, chair of the Vermont Curriculum Leaders Association, said to committee members on Jan. 5. 

Cynthia Gardner-Morse, a private literacy tutor in Vermont, expressed her support for the bill at the meeting Jan. 5. Citing a study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that measured Vermont students reading levels on a numbered scale, Gardner-Morse told lawmakers just 9% of students in Vermont classified as advanced and 66% were below proficient. 

The study’s numerical scale ranges from 0–500 and, based on the student’s score, categorizes them into three groups: below proficient, basic and advanced. Each level comes with an outline of what the student’s reading capabilities should be to meet the mark. 

“This reading crisis is not the fault of teachers,” Gardner-Morse told committee members. “It’s the fault of the entire system.” 

Dorinne Dorfman, principal at Champlain Elementary School, wants the state to take action — and she thinks S.204 is a solid first step. 

Dorfman told committee members at the same meeting that reading struggles are more prevalent than ever. Literacy tests are accurate, and implementing them will make positive change, she said.

“I urge you to go into any school and experience what most of our teachers are enduring every day. Come in and watch children try to write a complete sentence, try to spell a multisyllabic word,” Dorfman told committee members, adding later, “You will feel the urgency for change that I’m talking about.”

Most students with reading deficiencies have struggled since preschool or Kindergarten, and some don’t receive appropriate literacy screenings until they are seniors in high school, Dorfman said. She applauded the bill’s efforts to help students of all ages improve their reading skills. 

“We can’t ignore [older] kids,” she said. “We should never say, ‘Sorry, you’re too old to get help.’ Instead, S.204 says, ‘We see your struggle. We’re going to teach you to read and write at grade level and invest in the future you deserve’.”

S.204 continues to be discussed and amended in committee. If passed, the bill would take effect  July 1, 2024. Gulick made the level of urgency clear when she introduced the bill to Senate education committee members Jan. 5.

“There was a time when we were second in the nation for literacy, and now we are in the middle of the pack,” Gulick said.

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