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Jillian Balow

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow prepares to enter the joint session of the Wyoming Legislature last year at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne. Balow praised a new law related to elementary school testing.

Wyoming’s education chief praised a new law spearheaded by the Natrona County School District that clarifies testing and the steps schools need to take to ensure students are reading at grade level.

“We went into this session really hoping to clarify (that) ... we had a law on the books that was interpreted differently by teachers, by me, by my department and by legislators,” State Superintendent Jillian Balow said last week. “What that created was a whole lot of chaos.”

The law was the product of months of discussions among education leaders in Casper, Balow, her Department of Education and local lawmakers. The bill that was first drafted was sponsored by three Casper lawmakers, including Natrona County High coach and House Speaker Steve Harshman. In general, the law will require districts implement a program to assess — and, when appropriate, intervene with — students’ reading abilities. The program will specifically screen for dyslexia among students between kindergarten and third grade.

Each of Wyoming’s 48 districts will continue to report to the state each year on their progress toward achieving an 85 percent rate of students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. That report will also include the number of students who show signs of having dyslexia while describing intervention plans.

For schools and districts that fall below 85 percent, they will be required to submit an improvement plan to the state detailing educators’ plan to increase reading proficiency levels. That plan must include detailed information about instruction, assessments, interventions, specific training for reading teachers and more.

Balow acknowledged that the 85 percent mark wouldn’t happen overnight. She said that recent statewide assessment results were about 50 percent.

The Natrona County school board had repeatedly raised concerns at meetings about the statute as previously written and how it was interpreted at the state level. Board members here felt that assessing younger students — specifically those kids between kindergarten and third grade — to provide the state with “longitudinal data” was inappropriate. The district had chosen its own screener, FastBridge, that it wanted to use, rather than the state’s assessment, WY-TOPP.

The district had written letters to Balow and the Education Department, which culminated in a meeting between the state superintendent and the school board a year ago. But trustees here remained unsatisfied and pursued a legislative remedy with local lawmakers.

In an interview last week in Casper, Balow praised the final legislative product, which grew from the original version to include more details about intervention. The law gives more control to districts to choose their own screeners and assessments and build their own intervention program. Balow said the “bulk of the work” still falls on the districts, which she said was important as those teachers and schools know their students better than policymakers in Cheyenne.

The legislation twice struck language in statute that required the reporting of longitudinal data. Still, a last provision mandates such information be sent to the state by districts. However, that data can be gleaned from assessments chosen and assessed by each individual district, rather than a state-given exam.

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An earlier version of the bill had the support of Toni Billings, a former school board member in Natrona County who had led the local effort to clarify the statute. A message left for Billings — who did not run for re-election last fall — on Friday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Balow praised the debate and the sometimes “uncomfortable conversations” that ultimately led to the law being crafted and passed. She said the new law would give the state a way to measure how it’s doing to reach that 85 percent proficiency rate while requiring districts to “dig pretty deep” to provide the required interventions.

She said Natrona County leaders shared a common goal with the state in identifying and helping students with reading difficulties and dyslexia. The concern in Casper was more driven by ensuring that assessment and screening was useful in instruction, Balow added.

The crafting of the bill “happened in a way that really benefits our schools that maybe don’t quite know what to do, our schools that are already doing this, and most importantly, it benefits our students who are struggling with dyslexia,” she said.

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Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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