Georgia schools will have to screen young students for dyslexia

Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by children, parents, lawmakers and educators, signed a new dyslexia screening mandate during a ceremony at Wheeler High School on May 2, 2019. AJC FILE PHOTO



Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by children, parents, lawmakers and educators, signed a new dyslexia screening mandate during a ceremony at Wheeler High School on May 2, 2019. AJC FILE PHOTO

All public schools in Georgia will have to start screening students for dyslexia from kindergarten through third grade starting in two years.

The new requirement by the state education board implements a 2019 state law that mandated annual screening starting in the 2024-25 school year.

The rule, which instructs schools how to implement the law, was approved in a unanimous vote by the Georgia Board of Education Thursday. It says school districts must do “universal screening” for students who “may be at risk for low learning outcomes” because they have “characteristics of dyslexia.”

Schools must provide academic intervention for, and at least monthly monitoring of, students deemed to have characteristics of dyslexia.

Federal law, and until now state law, have not required schools to identify students with dyslexia. Instead, they have had to look for students who are reading worse than expected. Students get formal help for a “specific learning disability,” a broad legal category that mentions dyslexia as a possible cause. But state data have shown the percentage formally identified in that category has generally been smaller, around 5%, than the 10%, or even 20%, of students that researchers say have dyslexia.

Definitions of dyslexia vary despite more than a century of study. The state law defines it as a condition rooted in the nervous system and revealed in poor word recognition, bad spelling and weakness in translating letters to sounds.

The law and resulting state rule are a nod to what’s known as the “reading wars” — a long-running academic dispute over the best way to teach reading. One camp believes in teaching kids whole words, using pictures and other clues, while the other believes in breaking those words into sounds. That latter camp backs what they call the “science of reading.” The approach, informed by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, uses “phonics” to split words into sounds. It recently influenced Gwinnett County’s school system to overhaul its literacy curriculum.

The science approach is backed by advocates such as Tina Engberg, state leader for the group Decoding Dyslexia. She sees a crisis that is undermining the education of students who are undiagnosed, untreated and unable to read proficiently. The latest results from the state Milestones tests showed more than a third of students in third grade were reading below grade level last school year. Nearly two thirds had scores that indicated they were not proficient in English.

Engberg was among the parents who pushed for that 2019 screening law, and was among those who attended meetings that informed the new state rule. The rule and accompanying guidance is a good first step, she said, but will only be as effective as Georgia’s 180 school districts allow it to be.

School districts will have to implement the screening and train their staff to identify and teach students with dyslexia.

“This is the tip of a very large iceberg,” Engberg said. “A lot of this is an exercise in bringing awareness to school districts.”

State school Superintendent Richard Woods said the process for identifying dyslexia is complex. “The work has just begun,” he said.


School districts must do “universal screening” for students who have “characteristics of dyslexia.”

They may also screen for three other disorders: aphasia (some inability to communicate by speech or writing), dyscalculia (the inability to understand numbers) and dysgraphia (lack of the motor skills needed to write).

Parents must be notified of the initial screening but their consent isn’t required. Their consent is required, though, for any additional screening that school officials deem necessary if the universal screener raises red flags.

The state has assembled guidance for school districts. They must select a state-approved screening tool or get approval from the state education board if they want to use one that isn’t on the list.