By Kristin McGuire, TCASE
The State Board of Education (SBOE) is charged by state law to develop a program for screening and testing students for dyslexia and related disorders. Each local school board must provide for the treatment of students identified with dyslexia or a related disorder in accordance with the SBOE program. Separately, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is charged with monitoring local compliance with the state’s dyslexia mandates, in addition to its overall monitoring authority for the implementation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The SBOE identified its program decades ago through The Dyslexia Handbook, Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders. The SBOE made significant changes to the state’s methods for screening, evaluating, identifying, and serving students with dyslexia and related disorders in September 2021, primarily in response to federal concerns. The revised handbook became effective February 10. Here are five things every principal needs to know.
1. Know the Difference Between IDEA and 504
Campus personnel often use the terms individualized education program (IEP), special education, and Section 504 where it refers to students with particular learning and/or behavioral needs, but do you know the difference?
The IDEA is a federal law that provides grants to states and local educational agencies (LEAs) coupled with specific requirements on identifying and educating students with disabilities. There are eligibility requirements to be identified as a student with a disability, which center around a student meeting the criteria for one of the predetermined disability categories and needing special education and related services because of the disability.
The law also requires that a team of qualified individuals, which includes the student’s parent, develop IEPs for eligible students. Parents have specific due process rights as members of the IEP team (in Texas referred to as the Admission, Review, and Dismissal [ARD] committee) that they can access when disagreements about the student’s special education services occur.
Section 504 is a completely different section of federal law that addresses the civil rights of individuals who have a disabling condition. The definition of disability is different in this law than in IDEA, as are the eligibility requirements to meet the definition of disability. The primary intent of this law is to prevent discrimination and provide equitable access for those with disabilities.
LEAs are required to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students under Section 504, just as they are through IDEA (although the definitions are different). Parents are not required members of the team responsible for determining the educational needs of a student under a Section 504 plan, whereas parents are integral members of the ARD committee. With the absence of such requirement, those same due process rights described above do not exist to the same extent as under IDEA. Additionally, there are no funds generated from Section 504, as this is an anti-discrimination statute required of any entity that receives federal education funds.
Key Takeaway: IDEA and Section 504 are not the same. It’s not an either/or system. All students with IEPs are protected under Section 504, but not all those protected under Section 504 are eligible under IDEA. However, eligibility under IDEA is not possible unless the student is evaluated under that law.
2. All Students Suspected of Having Dyslexia or a Related Disorder Must Be Offered a Full and Individual Initial Evaluation (FIIE)
In terms of dyslexia, it is important to know the difference between IDEA and Section 504. Although practices varied across the state, the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) determined during its listening sessions, LEA visits, TEA discussions, and stakeholder conversations that the default pathway for dyslexia evaluation and identification across the state had become the Section 504 process. This meant less formal – and therefore potentially incomplete – evaluations, and parents were not required members of the committees that determined eligibility and educational service needs.
The 2018 version of the handbook listed what it called “Standard Protocol Dyslexia Instruction” (SPDI) as an accommodation under Section 504 and did not consider it to be specially designed instruction. Special education means specially designed instruction, provided at no cost, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.
IDEA defines specially designed instruction as adapting, as appropriate, to the needs of the child with a disability, the content, methodology, and delivery of instruction to:
- address the unique needs of the child based on the disability; and
- to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the same standards as other students.
Prior to the September 2021 changes, a more complete evaluation under IDEA was only required when a committee of knowledgeable persons thought the student needed more than SPDI to be successful.
The September 2021 updates to the Dyslexia Handbook change the dual pathways and communicate that SPDI could be part of a child’s special education and related services. Dyslexia is listed in IDEA and its corresponding regulations as an example of a specific learning disability (SLD), which is one of the predetermined disability eligibility categories.
The perceived default Section 504 pathway for evaluation of dyslexia is partly why OSEP determined that Texas was in violation of the IDEA Child Find law – the law that requires that every student suspected of a disability and who may need special education services be evaluated under the requirements described in IDEA. OSEP must be satisfied with the state’s implementation of these dyslexia evaluation changes before it releases the state from its corrective action.
A formal evaluation under IDEA, called a full and individual initial evaluation (FIIE) provides for specific protocols and professionals to evaluate a student based on his or her suspected disability(ies) and to assist in developing the continuum of needs if the student qualifies for special education and related services.
Any suspicion of dyslexia or a related disorder therefore must now be handled under IDEA. Only if a parent objects to this type of evaluation is a Section 504 evaluation permitted. As principals, you must reiterate this process to your staff; any perception that a campus is encouraging a parent to opt-out of the FIIE process will violate the intent of the SBOE 2021 changes and the federal law for which Texas continues to be under a corrective action.
Key Takeaway: From a student-centered perspective, a child needs a full and complete evaluation to know what the student requires to be successful. With this evaluation, the first step is determining whether the child has a disability through IDEA. The second step is determining if the child needs special education and related services. You must refer to that definition of specially designed instruction to determine the second prong.
3. Have Strong Data Collection and Analyses Processes
We are all aware of the universal dyslexia screening requirements for students in kindergarten and grade 1. The recent changes to the handbook did not change the timeline for these screeners – end of year for kindergarten and by January 31 for grade 1. However, the required screener criteria were adjusted, as the previous criteria arguably resulted in more of an evaluation than a universal screener. A universal screener is meant to be quickly administered and is designed to provide one piece of data to indicate whether a student may be at risk of reading difficulties.
That said, just because a student is determined to be “at-risk” based on a universal screener, this does not generally lead to an automatic suspicion of dyslexia that would trigger a special education evaluation. It does trigger the need for more data gathering and various interventions to determine whether the student is suspected of having a disability. It will be critical to have well-functioning student support teams who can analyze student data to determine appropriate next steps.
Additionally, some parents have been told in the past that evaluations for dyslexia or a related disorder are not recommended until upper elementary grade levels. If this is still a practice, it must cease, as any suspicion of dyslexia or a related disorder based on the LEA’s data must be appropriately evaluated regardless of enrolled grade level.
Key Takeaway: Data drives decision-making. If you get a request from a parent for a special education evaluation before the LEA data indicates a suspicion of a disability and the LEA does not feel an evaluation is necessary at the time it receives a request, the LEA will need strong data to demonstrate that a disability is not suspected. All decisions to reject a parental request for a special education evaluation must be documented to the parent in what is known as a Prior Written Notice. If you suspect a disability and evaluate, data will also be a critical element in the committee’s determinations.
4. Identification Under Special Education Does Not Mean an Automatic Special Education Setting
In addition to other misunderstandings and misconceptions in previous dyslexia practices is the notion that if a student has an IEP (is receiving special education and related services) and is identified with dyslexia or a related disorder, that the student must be served by a special education teacher in a special education classroom. This is untrue, and the 2021 handbook updates clarify that the most qualified person should deliver dyslexia services. While there are specifics to work out, such as instructional arrangement issues, it is important to consider what the student needs and who can best provide those services on your campus. This is not to say that your special education teachers should not also be trained in best practices associated with dyslexia; they should be prioritized for training just as much as your other dyslexia specialists are.
The new changes also may result in situations in which you have students with an IEP receiving the same direct dyslexia services as a student without an IEP. It will all depend on the student’s evaluation, identification, and service support needs.
Key Takeaway: We must remember that special education and related services are just that – services – and should not be considered a “place.” Qualifying for special education and related services should never translate into a specific placement; the decision is individualized. Decisions about services and placement must be left to the ARD committee alone.
5. Intervention is The Responsibility of Every Adult on Campus
It is important for principals to provide collaborative opportunities to learn and to share knowledge among all campus staff, considering the development of literacy achievement academies, the early childhood (EC) through grade 3 science of teaching reading standards and certification requirements, and the continuing education requirements that exist for any teacher in recognizing characteristics of dyslexia.
Any silo approach of separate responsibilities and duties of dyslexia teachers/specialists, special education teachers, Section 504 coordinators, dyslexia coordinators, special education coordinators, and the like will no longer function adequately in our schools.
Key Takeaway: Use your dyslexia allotment and state dyslexia grants to build local capacity and prioritize collaboration. Work to dismantle any “that’s your kid, this is my kid” mentality.
With the 2021 changes to the handbook, the state has begun inching its way to handling dyslexia the same as any other disability that may require special education and related services. However, specific dyslexia state laws still exist, including a dyslexia allotment, the SBOE requirement to develop a dyslexia program, and a TEA mandate to monitor dyslexia programming. It is important to be aware of all pertinent requirements. In terms of the handbook, principals should be familiar with all chapters of the revised handbook, but particularly well versed in Chapter III, which discusses evaluation
Kristin McGuire serves as Director of Governmental Relations at TCASE.