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Peter’s Take: UVA Reading Test Monopoly Harms At-Risk Students

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The University of Virginia (UVA) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) have used their status and political power to prevent the Virginia General Assembly from taking action to enable the use of by far the most effective reading readiness screening test (RAN).

Instead, Virginia’s children are being tested using a much less effective test (PALS) from which UVA-associated individuals and organizations derive financial benefits.  The Virginia General Assembly will be investigating those financial benefits this year.

The VDOE – UVA literacy screening partnership

Since 1997, Virginia has been using the state-endorsed Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test (PALS), created by UVA, to identify students experiencing or at-risk for reading difficulties. UVA and the VDOE worked in tandem to support and sponsor PALS.

PALS’ questionable effectiveness for identifying dyslexia and other reading disabilities

According to the International Dyslexia Association, “perhaps as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole–have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words.”

Despite Virginia’s screening and intervention processes having been in place since 1997, children continue to be identified after 3rd grade as being dyslexic, when remediation is more intensive and costly to be effective. How many of these students could/should have received more effective K-3 reading interventions based on a timely identification, perhaps obviating their need for special education or remain unidentified and struggling in the general education system?

In the meantime, another test, RAN, (5-10 minute administration time) is “one of the strongest predictors of later reading ability” (p. 431).

RAN legislative action 2018-2019

Decoding Dyslexia Virginia (DDVA), a grassroots network of parents, supported SB865 and SB1718 in the 2018 and 2019 Virginia General Assembly sessions. These bills would have added a RAN test to Virginia’s screening processes. UVA and VDOE successfully killed these grassroots initiatives:

RAN legislative action 2020

In 2020, Arlington Delegate Patrick Hope (D-47), supported by the Arlington branch of the NAACP and DDVA, introduced  HB332 seeking to pilot a product-neutral RAN test. Data from an APS 2018 Pilot Program to use both RAN and PALS assessments (seven elementary schools) confirmed that 15 to 21 percent of students passed the PALS but failed the RAN – proof of RAN’s significantly greater effectiveness.

Hope’s bill passed the House on a 95-5 vote. But VDOE and UVA intervened in the Senate, killing Hope’s legislation. VDOE and UVA testified (video at 53:30) in opposition to HB332 and in favor of an alternative to “update” PALS (a three-year minimum undertaking).  UVA and VDOE killed HB332 even though RAN tests are currently available. Although even UVA now belatedly concedes the inadequacies of PALS, UVA wanted this delay to enable UVA to create its own RAN test in order to continue reaping the financial benefits from its testing monopoly.

The urgent need to deploy RAN now

Two weeks before the bill’s defeat, a UVA professor tweeted “We need an early literacy screener that will not miss 50% of students at-risk-of reading failure in the early grades…”  Then, in the wake of the defeat of Hope’s bill, a William & Mary professor tweeted “We need permission to use a valid assessment while PALs is being reworked.”


The VDOE–UVA partnership perpetuates a screening monopoly which uses an inadequate tool. VDOE is promoting a system with limited accountability, lacking checks and balances, by outsourcing the entire process to UVA’s PALS Office. The VDOE’s only recommendation is to double-down on UVA and continue to invest more public funding for UVA.

Most school districts in Virginia must financially rely on the VDOE for access to effective screeners, since PALS has historically been provided free to districts. Thankfully, APS is not in the same boat.  

What APS should do now

APS must lead the way to improve literacy, as it appears that VDOE’s conflict of interest with UVA is proving too difficult for Virginia to overcome.

Among other steps, APS now should:

  • Expand its RAN pilot program to all elementary schools ASAP
  • Consider not using the PALS K-3 and look for alternative phonological awareness screeners
  • Immediately stop using PALS in grades 4th-5th (paid for by local taxes)

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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