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Reading disabilities overlooked using “local norms and cutoffs” – River Forest District 90

Decoding is an essential early literacy skill for translating the sound associated with the shape of letters. Illinois State standards expect kindergarteners to decode one-to-one letter-sound correspondences. Standards say first graders will be able to decode one and two syllable words. Reading fluency by the end of third grade is a benchmark for student and school success because most subsequent learning depends on an ability to read.

District 90 received a complaint for not identifying at least one student with a reading-related learning disability. “I recently got an external evaluation for one of my kids and what came back as the biggest challenge is decoding” said a D90 parent about her fifth grader at the October 16, 2023 board meeting.

The complaint comes years after adopting what the district has called “Balanced Literacy” instruction. Decoding is something notoriously missing from the Lucy Calkins Units of Study curriculum, the cornerstone of “Balanced Literacy” initiated by curriculum director Alison Hawley.

The curriculum uses an alternative approach to early literacy instruction called cueing, or using pictures, sentence structure, and letters to identify words, instead of translating the letters to sounds. The curriculum publisher recommends buying certain books suited to the approach, these books are found in District 90 Elementary school classroom libraries.

Are there more River Forest students with learning disabilities now compared to before "Balanced Literacy"? There is an important other consideration.

During a March 20, 2023, board meeting D90’s Hawley said “We have developed local norms or cutoffs, for lack of a better word, for when a student would qualify for a tier two intervention or a tier three intervention.” This comment was in reference to the use of multi-tiered systems of support, or a system for identifying students with learning disabilities and addressing these disabilities with interventions. E3 is investigating District 90’s “local norms” and "cutoffs" for which students are recommended for extra help.

In this instance, District 90’s “local norms or cutoffs” didn’t identify a reading problem state standards say should be mastered before the fifth grade. Child Find law calls “the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations” a Specific Learning Disability that should be found using Federal funding received by the District. District 90 reported expecting $489,200 of federal funding for special education in the 2023-2024 budget.

At a board meeting on September 18, 2023, one resident said “the scary thing with this curriculum is parents don’t know their children can’t read and write” and cautioned asking “how many other children are flying under the radar”. On October 3, 2023, a resident and neuropsychiatrist described continuing to use a flawed approach as “unethical” and said “I beg that you reform the literacy curriculum”.

While complaints have been shrugged off by incumbent board members who hold a unified majority vote, this report of disparity between findings of an outside evaluation and no finding using “local norms and cutoffs” may signal an unavoidable problem for District officials.

Does any of this hit home? Are your children delayed in development? Have you sought outside help to identify academic deficiencies? Are you tutoring for something you expected from District 90? There’s something you can do.

Contact E3 at to learn more about the System Group Complaint process.

Watch the March 2023 D90 literacy discussion here.

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