Keith Ripp and other Madison-area parents have spent thousands of dollars to test and tutor their children for dyslexia. They think this is something Wisconsin school districts should more aggressively pursue.
But Ripp has a better-than-average ability to do something about it. A Republican state assemblyman from Lodi, he has authored a bill to require that schools perform dyslexia screening on pupils in kindergarten through second grade, as well as those from grades three to five who score low on reading tests.
Another Ripp bill would require the Department of Public Instruction to ensure that reading specialists, special education teachers and elementary school reading instructors are trained and tested in dyslexic instruction techniques.
"My youngest son, who is 13, has severe dyslexia," says Ripp. "My wife and I knew something was going on before second grade. We hired tutors. We tried to work with the school system to come up with something. We had his hearing and eyesight checked. He was very intelligent but was struggling a lot with reading."
The couple paid for the testing on their own, as well as some tutoring, at an estimated cost of about $8,000.
"We got him into a program to give him the tools and help him figure out how he has to learn," Ripp says. "It is a different approach."
The learning disability of dyslexia is neurological in origin and often genetic. It's characterized by difficulties with word recognition and poor spelling and reading abilities. These can lead to problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience.
Ripp's bills would require that schools provide testing and training supported by the Wisconsin Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, or WIBIDA.
Danya Lanphear of Madison noticed in preschool that her son wasn't learning his letters. But it wasn't until second grade that a teacher suspected dyslexia and helped get an outside diagnosis.
"Children should be tested for the hallmarks of dyslexia, which are sound awareness, rapid naming and letter knowledge," says Lanphear, a member of WIBIDA's legislative committee. But many school districts, including Madison, don't require this, "and outside testing is expensive and difficult for low-income or middle-class families."
Worse, she contends, "Once our kids are diagnosed, there aren't teachers trained in teaching remediation for dyslexia in the Madison district."
Lanphear's son, now 11, is in sixth grade at a Madison middle school. His reading skills have improved, but he still does not read at his grade level.
Joe Quick, a spokesman for the Madison Metropolitan School District, defends its approach to dyslexia in students.
The district does not test kids for dyslexia per se, but testing is done when teacher observations indicate a student may have a problem. "Once a referral for a student is made, the referral allows the school psychologist to do multiple tests in multiple areas of a child's ability," says Quick. "Sometimes dyslexia is an outcome of those tests."
Christie Ashmore, a special education teacher at Madison's Van Hise Elementary School, stresses that schools must follow a specific process under state and federal law for determining whether students need special education.
"They have to meet eligibility criteria for having a specific disability and a need for special education to receive services," she explains. "We test for a reading disorder. One of the things that tells us is looking at phonetic decoding."
The U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act helps determine eligibility for special education. Dyslexia doesn't have its own eligibility category, but it may be considered part of a specific learning disability.
"If someone came to us with a report that described dyslexia, that is not an automatic entry into special education," says John Harper, the district's interim educational services director. "Perhaps there would be additional assessments with the parents involved.... This is always done on an individual basis."
Once a student is identified with a form of dyslexia, he adds, "services and or interventions are provided to improve reading skills," based on the advice of a team of experts.
If no disability is determined, recommendations are still provided for additional support.
"You can call it what you want, but you have to figure out how to help," says Vaunce Ashby, a learning disabilities consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction. "Students who struggle may not have a disability. That doesn't mean they don't need support. And it can be a good thing that a child doesn't need special education."
An article by John Gabriela of MIT in the July 17 issue of Science states that from 5% to 17% of children have developmental dyslexia. And it faults the approach taken by most school districts in response.
"Typical public school and special education interventions," Gabriela alleges, "often stabilize the degree of reading failure rather than remediate [normalize] reading skills."
Ripp stresses that his legislation is aimed at helping students with reading disabilities of all types, whether due to dyslexia or some other problem.
"Our goal is to give schools and teachers the tools and aids to help these kids and recognize the symptoms," he says. "We want to set up a screening program to identify kids who have problems with reading. Hopefully dyslexia would be identified."
Ripp has 10 co-sponsors in the state Assembly and Senate - including eight Democrats and two Republicans. The state's powerful teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has not yet taken a position on the bills. Nor has Madison Teachers Inc., the local teachers union, or the Department of Public Instruction.
"Some say we are making the teachers' jobs harder, but that is not my goal," Ripp stresses. "Some teachers know little about dyslexia. We are hoping this legislation will help school systems and teachers. It is a nonpartisan issue, so we are hoping for a lot of support."