Criticism buries reading test bill

Senate Bill 614 was born, or reborn, on June 18 when state Sen. Susan Rubio stripped the contents from the measure, after it had passed the Senate and was pending in the Assembly, and inserted an entirely different proposal.

It’s known in the Capitol as “gut and amend,” a technique for bypassing the Legislature’s ordinary procedures and deadlines. The revised bill would have abolished a test that applicants for California teacher credentials must pass to confirm their ability to teach reading.

Three weeks later, though, SB 614 died a quiet death, just before it was to face its first committee hearing. Rubio, a West Covina Democrat, dropped the measure, which had become engulfed in a firestorm of criticism from academic experts on reading, from civil rights advocates and from reading disorder activists.

It was an all-too-rare instance of good sense in the Capitol. Many, if not most, wrongheaded bills continue to be pushed by their authors and advocates even when their deficiencies become obvious.

In this case, the legislation had apparent support from the California Teachers Association, arguably the Capitol’s single most influential interest group, which made its death even more unusual.

Rubio said the legislation stemmed from her 17 years as a classroom teacher. It also reflected criticism that the Reading Competence Instruction Assessment (RICA) is a financial burden on applicants, doesn’t respond to needs of high-risk children, exacerbates California’s teacher shortage, and that “passage rates based on gender, ethnicity and other factors demonstrate bias,” as one state Commission on Teacher Credentialing report puts it.

That would seem to be a compelling argument for abolishing RICA but after SB 614’s existence became widely known – and particularly after it was highlighted in this column on June 30 – the Assembly Education Committee was inundated with letters, emails and other messages of opposition, over 8,000 by one tally.

One critical letter was signed by nearly four dozen members of the “reading research community,” mostly university academics, including those from other states and even nations.

By removing the reading instruction test, they said, the bill would “open the door for California to return to experimental and non-proven methods for teaching reading.” They added, “Particularly damaged by this backward retreat will be children of color, children living in poverty and English learners.”

That sentiment was also reflected in a letter from the Oakland branch of the NAACP, which said the bill would illegally deprive children of a meaningful education with the most adverse impact on African-American students, adding, “we celebrate the right to sit at lunch counters while also realizing that many of our children cannot read the menu.”

Still another critical letter came from the International Dyslexia Association and seemed aimed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, who suffers from dyslexia, as much as at legislators. “The scientific evidence is clear,” the association said. “Humans don’t naturally learn how to read; they must be taught. But SB 614 would deny that science.”

As all of those messages implied, the battle wasn’t so much over RICA, but over its underlying principle of teaching reading via “phonics” rather than its rival method, known as “whole language.”

After years of academic and political argument, phonics triumphed in the 1990s and part of that shift was placing the RICA requirement in the law. Had the test been abolished, it would have indirectly dumped phonics.

California’s children still are below average in national reading tests, which puts them at a disadvantage in acquiring other basic educational skills. Hopefully, the flap over SB 614 will generate much-needed attention to that shortcoming.

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