Mulligans for Elementary Reading Teachers; permanent exemption proposal

Wisconsin Reading Coalition:

A bill is circulating in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature that would permanently exempt special education teachers from having to pass the Foundations of Reading Test (FORT). Prospective special educators would merely have to take one course in reading and reading comprehension, receive some unspecified coaching, and compile a portfolio. There is nothing that would make this course any more rigorous than existing reading courses. On completion of their teacher preparation program, they would be eligible for a Tier II license,on the pathway to a Tier III lifetime license without ever passing the FORT. The most needy students would receive the least qualified teachers.

Rep. Tranel and Sen. Marklein, the sponsors of LRB 1180/1 and LRB 2735/1, are seeking other legislators to sign on as co-sponsors by noon on Thursday, April 18th. Please take a moment today to contact your legislators with your concerns, and ask them not to sign on. Find your legislators here:

Wisconsin Reading Coalition has sent a blanket email to all legislators. The text is attached. Please feel free to use it to help you craft some comments.

Wisconsin Reading Coalition is a grassroots organization of families, educators, school administrators, higher education staff, tutors, psychologists, speech and language pathologists, attorneys, and other concerned Wisconsinites who advocate for changes in reading instruction that will improve student outcomes. 

One of the statutory provisions WRC supports is the requirement that elementary teachers, reading teachers, reading specialists, and special education teachers pass the Foundations of Reading Test (FORT) before becoming licensed teachers. It is undeniable that teachers who know more can teach more effectively. The FORT assesses basic knowledge about reading and teaching reading that is essential for all teachers, but especially those who are responsible for beginning and struggling readers. Of course, there are many other skills and many other areas of knowledge that are important to being a well-rounded educator, but an individual who cannot pass the FORT is not qualified to teach beginning or struggling readers. 

Ever since the FORT requirement was passed in 2011, adult special interest groups have been pressuring DPI and the legislature to lessen its impact. Our educator preparation programs are simply not doing a good job of teaching reading, and the FORT failure rate is higher than desired. 

DPI has responded by offering a variety of emergency licenses, licenses with stipulations, and most recently Tier I licenses that allow individuals to become teachers without passing the FORT. Teachers still cannot attain a Tier II or Tier III lifetime license without passing this exam. However, because Tier I licenses are infinitely renewable, a teacher can go through an entire career without passing the FORT. The sole exception is special education teachers, who are required by federal IDEA law to be “highly-qualified.” These teachers currently must pass the FORT within 3 years of entering the classroom.

The legislature has responded by creating FORT exemptions for certain teachers coming from out-of-state, as well as those who have been educated in the American Board online program. These individuals are allowed to skip the FORT entirely and move forward to Tier II and Tier III lifetime licenses. 

Now the legislature is being asked to take up LRB 1180/1 and LRB 2735/1, which will allow special educators to become fully licensed without ever passing the FORT. In place of the FORT, this legislation would merely require one reading course covering all five major components of reading, unspecified interaction with a coach, and compiling of a personal portfolio. The content of the course is not specified and, in any event, a one-semester course is not enough to cover all five components of reading in sufficient depth. Nothing assures us that this “rigorous” course will be any different from the reading coursework already required, or that it will be taught by anyone with deeper knowledge of reading science. It cannot be assumed that the holding of a master’s degree or reading specialist license makes a coach highly-qualified, and there is nothing to indicate the extent of the coaching. The design, content, and evaluation of the portfolio, which takes the place of the FORT, is not specified. 

In short, all this legislation accomplishes is to exempt special education teachers from passing the FORT. While this may solve the adult dilemmas of teachers who cannot pass the FORT and district administrators who have a dwindling pool of job applicants, it is done at the expense of our most vulnerable children in special education. Where they should have the most qualified teachers, they will now receive the least qualified. 

76% of our 4th grade special education students perform at the Below Basic level on the NAEP reading assessment. That is the equivalent of being functionally illiterate. The FORT requirement was enacted in part to begin turning around this shameful story of Wisconsin education. Allowing a three-year grace period for a special educator to pass the FORT is already a major concession to adult interests. Supporting this legislation guarantees that special education students’ needs will continue to go unmet. We ask you to support disabled students by voting NO on a FORT exemption for special education teachers. 

A series of college reading courses that is based on the science of reading will prepare prospective teachers to pass the FORT, and will expand the qualified job applicant pool without sacrificing special education students. The FORT should not be approached as a hurdle to overcome by memorizing terms and using study guides. Rather, it should be a demonstration that the future teacher has learned sufficient information and gained sufficient skills from a series of reading courses and practicum experiences to be an effective teacher. WRC urges both the legislature and DPI to explore long-overdue changes in teacher preparation for the benefit of our teachers, our schools, and our students.  

Mulligans for Wisconsin Elementary Reading Teachers:

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction “DPI”, lead for many years by new Governor Tony Evers, has waived thousands of elementary reading teacher content knowledge requirements. This, despite our long term, disastrous reading results.

Chan Stroman tracks the frequent Foundations of Reading (FoRT) mulligans:

Our long term, disastrous reading results.