BOSTON -- School districts will be required to screen for dyslexia, a learning disability that affects as many as 1 in 6 children in Massachusetts, under new state guidelines.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued criteria for school districts to use in screening students, with a heavy emphasis on kindergarten through 3rd graders, as well as suggested curriculums for students who are diagnosed.

Advocates, who have lobbied for years for early childhood screening, say the guidance will mean fewer children slip through the cracks of the state education system.

"The reality is that every school should be screening for dyslexia," said Nancy Duggan, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, a national advocacy group. "It's a major problem in Massachusetts and nationally, and we know that identifying kids early means helping them before they fail."

Dyslexia is language-based learning disability. Individuals with dyslexia often have trouble organizing language, spelling and learning letters and their sounds.

Between 5% and 20% of the population have a reading disability; of those, as many as 85% are believed to have dyslexia.

Duggan said many children go undiagnosed because until now dyslexia hasn't been recognized as a disorder in Massachusetts and many other states.

Even when diagnosed, kids often haven't received the services they need because there is no statewide framework, she said. Services vary among school districts, and parents often must pay for outside programs, advocates say.

Prior to passage of the 2018 law, education officials treated dyslexia as a general learning disability and didn't require school districts to screen for it. The new guidelines include a first-ever state definition of dyslexia, which advocates say is critical for diagnosing the disorder.

Once diagnosed, students should receive a specific reading comprehension and other special programs, according to the guidelines.

State education officials point out that the early dyslexia screening doesn't necessarily mean a student will qualify for special education funding.

The guidelines stem from a 2018 law, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, that calls for teacher training on the learning disability and intervention strategies. It also requires schools to adopt "evidence-based dyslexia remediation" programs.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who co-sponsored the original proposal, said he hopes the new guidelines improve the screening and intervention processes, and hopes school districts quickly develop policies based on the recommendations.

"We need to be far more aggressive about screening and intervention for dyslexia," he said. "No child should be sitting in a classroom struggling to keep pace and feeling frustrated or depressed because they have dyslexia that hasn't been properly identified and addressed."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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