One anonymous teacher who is quoted in my book, claims that her district is not using DIBELS because administrators and teachers want to use it or because it gives helpful information, because it doesn’t, she claims. “We’re using it because Reading First requires it,” she says. “Some schools are posting fluency scores of children … and then the students have race cars, in the form of bulletin boards, where they are trying to race to the speed goal. On the phoneme segmentation part, some kindergarten classrooms have been known to drill and practice the segmentation while kids are in line waiting for the restroom.”
DIBELS is not just an early literacy test. Teachers are required to group learners and build instruction around the scores. They’re evaluated on the DIBELS scores their pupils achieve. Publishers are tailoring programs to DIBELS. And academic and life decisions for children, starting in kindergarten, are being made according to DIBELS scores.
I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Roland Good, a DIBELS developer, told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education Committee during a hearing last April that three million children are tested with DIBELS at least three times a year from kindergarten through third grade. New Mexico provides every teacher with a DIBELS Palm Pilot so the pupils’ scores can be sent directly to Oregon for processing.
Kentucky’s associate education commissioner testified at the hearing that the state’s Reading First proposal was rejected repeatedly until they agreed to use DIBELS. The DOE inspector general cited conflicts of interest by Good and his Oregon colleagues in promoting DIBELS.
Another teacher, quoted in my book, claims that while the DIBELS test is used throughout the school year, any child who receives the label “Needs Extensive Intervention” as a result of the first testing must be monitored with a “fluency passage” every other week.
No test of any kind for any purpose has ever had this kind of status. In my book, I analyzed each of the subtests in depth. Here are my conclusions:
• DIBELS reduces reading to a few components that can be tested in one minute. Tests of naming letters or sounding out nonsense syllables are not tests of reading. Only the misnamed Reading Fluency test involves reading a meaningful text, and that is scored by the number of words read correctly in one minute.
• DIBELS does not test what it says it tests. Each test reduces what it claims to test to an aspect tested in one minute.
• What DIBELS does, it does poorly, even viewed from its own criteria. Items are poorly constructed and inaccuracies are common.
• DIBELS cannot be scored consistently. The tester must time responses (three seconds on a stopwatch), mark a score sheet, and listen to the student, whose dialect may be different from the tester, all at the same time.
• DIBELS does not test the reading quality. No test evaluates what the reader comprehends. Even the “retelling fluency test” is scored by counting the words used in a retelling.
• The focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere. It just has children do everything fast.
• DIBELS misrepresents pupil abilities. Children who already comprehend print are undervalued, and those who race through each test with no comprehension are overrated.
• DIBELS demeans teachers. It must be used invariantly. It leaves no place for teacher judgment or experience.
• DIBELS is a set of silly little tests. It is so bad in so many ways that it could not pass review for adoption in any state or district without political coercion. Little can be learned about something as complicated as reading development in one-minute tests.
Pedagogy of the Absurd
I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Nothing better illustrates this than DIBELS. It never gets close to measuring what reading is really about-making sense of print. It is absurd that self-serving bureaucrats in Washington have forced it on millions of children. It is absurd that scores on these silly little tests are used to judge schools, teachers and children. It is absurd that use of DIBELS can label a child a failure the first week of kindergarten. And it is a tragedy that life decisions are being made for 5- and 6-year-olds on the basis of such absurd criteria.
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.