He took PALS several times but was never identified as having dyslexia until last year, when he started eighth grade.
“Consequently,” Walker said, “he is facing a daunting uphill battle as he is headed into high school in August and could be in jeopardy of not graduating on time based on the extensive remediation that he needs.”
How was his problem finally spotted? He was given an expensive battery of other tests. Several experts and activists, including Walker, want Virginia to start a pilot program to see how what they consider the quickest, least-expensive and best-researched of the alternative methods, the Rapid Automatized Naming test (RAN), works as a supplement to PALS.
A Virginia Senate subcommittee delayed action on that until next year. State Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle said officials worried that what parents such as Walker wanted educators to do with RAN was “a broader purpose than for which it was designed.” Because RAN’s performance data was based on tests in the Midwest, he said, “there are concerns about the dissimilarity between this sample and Virginia’s student population, as well as the sample size.”
Pyle said the department wants to improve PALS and also add a RAN test to its system for identifying reading difficulties. But parents who have been working on the issue say they are enraged by the delay. “I am sick to my stomach,” Walker said.
It is one more sign of rising concern over failure to give all children the intensive phonics lessons proven many years ago to be essential to mastering reading.
Reading is becoming a lively issue in many parts of the country. California recently agreed in a lawsuit settlement to spend $53 million over three years in 75 low-performing elementary schools to improve reading instruction. Only about half of third-graders have met that state’s reading standards, part of a national failure to teach the vital skill to impoverished children.
It has hit hard in Virginia. Walker and two other leaders of the Arlington branch of the NAACP pointed to bad news for children in a January letter to state delegates.
There has been a persistent drop in scores on Virginia’s reading tests, according to federal data, the letter said. “Black and Hispanic students fare the worse in these results and are disproportionately impacted,” it stated.
They point to conclusions from the 2000 National Reading Panel that students need direct instruction in phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But they said “educational institutions are failing to implement the Reading Panel’s findings.”
The argument about whether PALS or RAN is the better way to identify reading difficulties seems technical and obscure. But parents such as Walker with a child falling behind find the numbers galling. Arlington County school officials have, for instance, discovered in seven elementary schools that 15 percent to 21 percent of students — much like Walker’s son — passed the PALS but failed the RAN, a signed of undetected problems.
The delay is likely to bring even more heated discussion in Virginia, part of a national trend. The reading wars — the 1980s conflict over teaching that subject — appear to be back.