Bill Analysis: An Act to promote high-quality comprehensive literacy instruction

A Summary of H.579/S.263
By Meghan Volcy, Associate, The Rennie Center

In 2005, Massachusetts fourth-graders achieved an average reading score of 231 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), with just 44 percent of students reported as “proficient or better.” More than a decade later, in 2019, average reading scores remained at 231, with 45 percent of students reported as “proficient or better”—“basically the same numbers with 14 or 15 years in between,” according to former Education Secretary James Peyser. Without timely screening methods to identify potential cases for intervention, Peyser warned that the state was adopting a “wait to fail” strategy–when students do not receive critical interventions until they have already fallen behind, leaving them to face a “lifetime of struggle to catch up.” 

The stagnation in reading scores has not gone unaddressed by Massachusetts policymakers. In 2018, the legislature passed “An Act Relative to Students with Dyslexia,” which directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to work with the Department of Early Education and Care on a set of research-based guidelines to help districts screen and identify students with reading-based learning disabilities. These guidelines were released in 2020, describing the need for universal screening to identify students in need of additional support, how to choose and use a screening tool, and how to adopt targeted reading interventions, among other information. Recognizing the continuing need for consistency across districts and schools, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education built on these guidelines in September 2022 by approving a new regulation that requires districts to carry out early literacy screening with all students in grades K-3 twice per year. Students whose results are significantly below the benchmark must receive targeted instruction and support, and schools must follow up with their families within 30 days. This regulation went into effect starting July 1, 2023, meaning that schools must begin the twice-annual screening process starting in the upcoming school year. 

Bills H.579 and S.263, “An Act to Promote High-Quality Comprehensive Literacy Instruction in All Massachusetts Schools,” which are currently under consideration in the state legislature, aim to advance this work by proposing new requirements regarding literacy screenings and services. The bills intend to help students who need literacy interventions and other individualized supports receive those earlier in their academic journeys.

The following bill analysis takes a closer look at H.579, highlighting a few specific features of the legislation, including how literacy screenings will be conducted; state-approved tools, timelines, and templates for reporting; and the types of support state education agencies will provide as schools and districts implement various screeners and interventions to promote student literacy.

Note: This bill analysis reviews the House version of this bill, though at the time of this analysis, the Senate version features identical language to the House bill.


Identifying High-Quality Literacy Materials

  • DESE will establish and maintain a list of evidence-based reading instruction curriculum for grades K-3 (section 3). 
    • Curriculum on this list must:
      • Align with evidence-based early literacy and science-based reading research (including explicit and systematic instruction in topics such as decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension)
      • Include a logical scope and sequence that is sequential, systematic, and cumulative
      • Include or support the use of high-quality instructional materials
    • DESE will provide a process through which public schools can submit an application for approval of an alternative curriculum that meets the above requirements
    • DESE will display on its website:
      • The current list of approved reading curricula 
      • The criteria and rubric used to identify high-quality curriculum
  • DESE will provide a list of universal reading screeners, literacy intervention approaches, and dyslexia screeners and explanations of how the screeners and interventions were selected (section 2)
    • The approaches are will be chosen based on available evidence and in consultation with national expert organizations 
  • The bill disincentivizes schools and districts from selecting screening assessments that are not on the approved list, including by requiring a written explanation of why that assessment was selected (section 2)
  • DESE will look for certain factors when deciding which universal reading screeners will be included on the Massachusetts Early Literacy Universal Screening Assessment list, including the amount of time that is required to conduct the screening (minimizing the impact on instructional time); the timeliness in reporting the screening results to teachers, administrators, and parents; and the alignment with a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) (section 2)
  • DESE will convene a panel of stakeholders to identify and list literacy intervention approaches aligned with essential components of evidence-based reading instruction and science-based reading research. This list must be published within 18 months of this act (section 4)

Literacy and Dyslexia Screening (section 2)

  • Each school district will assess each student in grades K-3 on their reading ability and progress in literacy skills at least three times a year using a valid, developmentally appropriate screening instrument approved by DESE (section 2)
    • If a student is significantly below the relevant benchmarks in specific literacy skills, the school will inform the student's parent/guardian within 30 days and offer a follow-up discussion. Educators should also employ practices within the general education program—for instance, differentiated or supplementary instruction, and ongoing progress monitoring—to meet the student’s needs.
  • Students enrolled in Kindergarten will be screened for characteristics of dyslexia (section 2)
    • The dyslexia screener must examine students’ literacy skills comprehensively, including alphabetic knowledge, ability to decode and encode words, and fluency with oral reading
    • Screening will happen after the 100th school day and again before the last day of Kindergarten, and parents will be notified of the results.
  • While the bill calls for all students to be screened in Kindergarten, students enrolled in a district in first or second grade can also receive an age-appropriate dyslexia screening at no cost, but only at the request of a parent or guardian (section 2)
    • Approved dyslexia screening tools must include the same items as the Kindergarten screener
      • If the results of the screening suggest further response, DESE will recommend best practices and give guidance to families and districts

Interventions to Support Student Literacy

  • Any student in grades K-3 who exhibits a deficiency in reading at any time (and any fourth grade student identified with reading deficiencies) will receive an individual reading improvement plan no later than 30 days after identifying the reading deficiency (section 4)
    • This plan will be created by the teacher, principal, and other pertinent school personnel, in partnership with parents/guardians
    • It will describe the research-based reading intervention services that the student will be receiving
    • The student will receive intensive reading intervention until they no longer need it
  • Districts will offer a reading intervention program to each K-3 student who exhibits a reading deficiency at the start of the school year (via the assessment system that has to be given within the first 30 days of the school year) to ensure that students can read at or above grade level by the end of grade 3 (section 4)
    • The reading intervention program will be provided in addition to core reading instruction in the general education classroom
    • The reading intervention program will:
      • Be provided to all K-3 students with a reading deficiency that was identified by DESE-approved assessment system administered within the first 30 days of school
      • Provide explicit and systematic instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension
      • Monitor the progress of each student's reading skills throughout the school year, adjusting instruction according to the student's needs
      • Be implemented during regular school hours

Support for Educators

  • DESE will offer tools and resources to help districts provide adequate professional development (aligned with evidence-based early literacy practices and science-based reading research) to literacy teachers, paraprofessionals, and reading specialists in grades K-3. This will include a list of Department-approved, high-quality professional development programs and vendors and a set of online training modules accessible to all teachers with foundational practices and pedagogy (section 1)
  • In collaboration with designees of the commissioner of higher education and a panel of stakeholders, DESE will draft recommendations to maximize the dissemination of evidence-based early literacy best practices to educators, administrators, and any other related school-based service providers across the state through pre-service training and professional development (section 1)
  • DESE will provide professional learning on reading screening and literacy intervention approaches at no cost to schools and districts (section 2)

Requirements for Districts

  • If a public school entity serves students in grades K-3, they must do the following before the beginning of the 2025-26 school year: (section 3)
    • Adopt a reading instruction curriculum from the approved list (as described above)
    • Offer approved competency-based professional development for educators providing reading instruction
      • This must be completed during the contractual day, and it must be high-quality professional learning aligned with the essential components of evidence-based reading instruction
    • Identify an individual responsible for assisting each school with the implementation of this curriculum
    • Demonstrate that all educators responsible for reading instruction/coaching have completed the approved professional development outlined above, including teachers, reading specialists and interventionists, coaches, and school administrators

Reporting and Measurement

  • Beginning in 2024, each district will report annually to DESE: (section 5)
    • The number and percentage of students disaggregated by grade and school who are identified with a potential reading deficiency (including characteristics of dyslexia) and the literacy intervention approaches the district is providing
    • The reading curricula the district has adopted 
    • The individuals responsible for assisting each school with the implementation of said curricula and their responsibilities for approving and providing professional development (sections 1 and 3)
    • How the district will ensure that educators have access to and successfully complete the required professional development (sections 1 and 3)
  • DESE will produce an annual report that provides: (section 5)
    • The number and percentage of students identified with a potential reading deficiency (including characteristics of dyslexia) and the literacy intervention approaches being provided
      • The data, disaggregated by grade and individual school, will be made available on the DESE website
    • A list of the curricula adopted by districts and the number of schools that have adopted each curriculum listed
    • The number of educators who have received each type of professional development described above
    • The percentage of educators required to receive professional development who have successfully completed it
      • DESE will send this report to the state legislature


Glossary of Relevant Terms (section 6)
Note: Full definitions of these terms can be found in section 6 of the legislation.

  • Evidence-based early literacy: Evidence-based instructional and assessment practices that address the multimodal approach that integrates listening, speaking, reading, spelling, and writing in the acquisition of oral and written language skills that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students
  • Science-based research: Research that applies rigorous, systematic, and objective observational or experimental procedures to obtain valid knowledge relevant to reading development, reading instruction, and reading and writing difficulties
  • Evidence-based literacy instruction: Structured instructional practices that are based on reliable, trustworthy, and valid evidence consistent with science-based reading research, used in core or general instruction, supplemental instruction, intervention services, and intensive intervention services that have a demonstrated record of success in adequately increasing students' competency in foundational reading skills
  • Universal reading screener: A tool used as part of a multi-tiered system of support to determine if a student is at risk for developing reading difficulties and the need for intervention and to evaluate the effectiveness of core curriculum as an outcome measure
  • Literacy intervention approaches: Evidence-based, specialized reading, writing, and spelling instruction that is systematic and explicit and intensified based on the needs of the student
  • Multi-tiered systems of support/MTSS: A framework designed to support schools in proactively identifying and addressing the strengths and needs of all students by optimizing data-driven decision-making, progress monitoring, and the use of evidence-based supports and strategies with increasing intensity to sustain student growth

The following hyperlinks provide more information on this bill and where it stands in the House and Senate. To learn more about literacy services and resources in Massachusetts, visit the state’s Mass Literacy website.