Is Your New Jersey School District Screening for Dyslexia?
Did you know that New Jersey law requires schools to screen struggling readers for dyslexia by second grade? A recent New Jersey special education administrative hearing decision includes a strong reminder for school teams to keep this in mind.
First, let’s take a very basic look at the recent administrative decision where dyslexia screening is discussed. In T.S. and M.S. versus the Ridgewood Village Board of Education (OAL DKT. No. EDS 00019-21, October 2021), the Administrative Law Judge (“Judge”) found that the School District failed to offer a “Free Appropriate Public Education,” or “FAPE,” to a student with dyslexia. The student in the case was classified as “Communication Impaired,” from kindergarten until the middle of second grade. At that point, at the parent’s request, further evaluations were conducted, the student’s clear reading disability was identified and the student’s classification was changed to “Specific Learning Disability.” However, the Judge ruled that the proposed IEP, “lacked the needed intensity of reading instruction,” and, “accordingly offered too little too late.” (See Page 17 of the decision.) Based on the facts in the decision, the parents removed their child from the public school when they feared he was falling further and further behind in reading and placed him in a private school. Ultimately, the Judge awarded tuition reimbursement for the private school.
*Please note that special education situations require a case-by-case analysis! The outcome in a dyslexia case with different test scores, facts and IEP team interactions could be very different. Further, administrative decisions do not create binding legal precedent, and the school district may appeal this ruling, which could alter the ultimate outcome in this case. All this said, the New Jersey law on dyslexia screening applies across the board, as explained below.
New Jersey’s dyslexia screening requirement:
In finding that the District failed to provide an appropriate program for the student in this case, the Judge discussed the New Jersey law requiring screening for dyslexia. N.J.S.A. 18A:40-5.3(a) states:
“A board of education shall ensure that each student enrolled in the school district who has exhibited one or more potential indicators of dyslexia or other reading disabilities is screened for dyslexia and other reading disabilities using a screening instrument selected pursuant to section 2 of this act no later than the student's completion of the first semester of the second grade.”
The law defines “potential indicators of dyslexia” as:
“indicators that include, but shall not be limited to,
difficulty in acquiring language skills;
inability to comprehend oral or written language;
difficulty in rhyming words;
difficulty in naming letters;
matching letters to sounds, and
blending sounds when speaking and reading words;
difficulty recognizing and remembering sight words;
consistent transposition of number sequences, letter reversals, inversions, and substitutions; and
trouble in replication of content.”
The requirement that students be screened for dyslexia is separate from the policy that all NJ school districts conduct universal screening of early reading skills in elementary school students. Once a student is identified as “at risk” in reading, and exhibits indicators of dyslexia, additional assessment should occur to rule out dyslexia.
Section 5.4 of the law states:
"In the event that a student is determined through the screening conducted pursuant to section 3 of this act to possess one or more potential indicators of dyslexia or other reading disabilities, the board of education shall ensure that the student receives a comprehensive assessment for the learning disorder. In the event that a diagnosis of dyslexia or other reading disability is confirmed by the comprehensive assessment, the board of education shall provide appropriate evidence-based intervention strategies to the student, including intense instruction on phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.”
In discussing the dyslexia screening requirement and the IEP proposed in this case, the administrative law judge emphasized a few other things that IEP teams may want to keep in mind:
Parents are not required to ask for a dyslexia screening for one to occur. (See page 16 of the decision.) The Judge made clear it is the school’s legal obligation to have a screening process in place “regardless of parental request.”
Screening should not always be delayed beyond kindergarten and first grade “because it is too early” and because the reading deficits “may be developmental.” In discussing this point, the Judge referred to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, which, while not law, offers “helpful and persuasive information.” (See page 16 of the decision, footnote 9). The NJ Dyslexia Handbook states: “Students who are identified by the district’s universal reading screening tools as “at-risk” and not considered ‘likely on track’ should be promptly placed into structured literacy interventions, progress monitored, and screened for dyslexia.” The Judge states, “This process thus can commence as early as kindergarten. Here it should have.”
The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook can be found here: https://www.nj.gov/education/specialed/dyslexia/NJDyslexiaHandbook.pdf
If you are a parent or educator who is interested in dyslexia and the screening requirement, you may want to check out the New Jersey Department of Education’s free training webinar, available here: https://www.nj.gov/education/specialed/dyslexia/handbook.shtml.
The AdvoKids team at Posternock Apell, PC provides legal and non-legal consultation to parent and educator members of IEP teams. Contact us with questions, comments or criticism about this article. We welcome your feedback and the chance to connect. Email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our office at 856-642-6445.
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