December 5, 2020

The DIBELing of Little Children by Ken Goodman (2006)

Today’s parents of five year olds are hearing a new answer to the age old question, “What did you do in school today? “I got DIBELed.” Within a few days of entering kindergarten, hundreds of thousands of five year olds are given their first opportunity to taste failure in their ability to say the names of letters in three seconds, say the sound that a picture name begins with in three seconds, and sound out three letter words in three seconds. And if they can’t get enough letters named, initial sounds made, or words sounded in one minute in each DIBELS sub-test then they have failed and are thus in need of intensive instruction even though they just started kindergarten. From then on they will be DIBELed three times during each year through third grade and sometimes beyond. By mid-year in kindergarten the children also must sound out a page of nonsense syllables. 

DIBELS reduces reading to a set of one-minute tests of reading “skills.” Many five year olds are simply overwhelmed by being escorted to an unfamiliar place in the school where a stranger with a stop watch rushes them through a series of tasks and stops them before they have had any chance to figure out what is happening.  

DIBELS takes over the lives of primary children and determines their school future. It becomes the curriculum. In a half-day kindergarten five year olds will get little more than DIBELing in school. Ironically, there’s little time for reading and even less time for writing. And all over America children are being retained in Kindergarten or first grade on the basis of their DIBELS scores. Some teachers have a bulletin board with nonsense words for the children to practice reading nonsense. Children practice for DIBELS while waiting in line to use the toilet.  

With their commitment to testing what a child can do rapidly and accurately in one minute, DIBELS authors reduce reading to a series of tasks that measures something less than what the name of each implies. The tests are Letter Naming, Initial Sound, Phonemic Segmentation , Nonsense Words , Oral Reading. The last is the only test that has the child read a real passage. The score is the number of words read correctly in one minute. Children learn in repeated testing and practice to say as many words as they can quickly and not worry about the meaning. There is also a Retelling, added according to the DIBELS manual when teachers worried that the oral reading score didn’t show comprehension. The score is the number of words the child used in the retelling. In this test there is no concern for the quality of the retelling.

The authors also added an oral Word Use test that involves no reading..The child is asked to “use” a word. The score is the number of words used in using the word.  

The authors require what they call “fluency” in each sub-test. The child must be fast and accurate whether naming letters, abstracting initial sounds, breaking words into sounds, saying nonsense words, reading oral passages, retelling the text, or using words orally. It’s hard to see what how fast a child can name letters has to do with making sense of print.  

In none of the DIBELS one minute tests is there any measure of the quality of the reading: No score shows comprehension. 

To summarize: DIBELS is a set of silly little, one minute tests so poorly thought through and constructed that they would be unlikely to pass the review of any school, district or state committee. Education Week has said that there are widespread beliefs among local and state authorities that they could not receive No Child Left Behind funds unless they adopted DIBELS. (Education Week, Sept. 7, 2005.) 

No child should suffer what millions are suffering from DIBELS. And no parent or teacher should be party to DIBELing the enthusiasm for school out of children for the sake of the meaningless bench marks that are replacing learning to read in too many American schools.