DIBELS: Pedagogy of the Absurd Hurts Children

K-12 Testing

The federal Reading First program has come under repeated scrutiny for corruption, exposing how individuals in charge of monitoring the program have pushed products, such as the DIBELS test, from which they have benefited financially (see "Reading First," this issue). Complementing the financial corruption is ideological corruption. In Examining DIBELS: What It Is and What It Does, Ken Goodman and his colleagues carefully dissect the test, concluding that it is conceptually flawed and educationally harmful.

DIBELS is one of the most common tools used to assess student early progress in learning to read. Goodman summarizes each subtest, examining the design of each and "the extent to which it tests what it is intended to measure." He finds it does not assess even the limited things it purports to test. He then critiques the underlying view of reading embedded in the DIBELS and the consequences of its use for curriculum, reading and "the lives of students and teachers." This book extends and complements Gerald Cole's Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (see Examiner, Fall 2004). It also could serve as a useful model for evaluating other standardized tests.

Goodman criticizes the implicit view underlying DIBELS that reading can be reduced to a few skills, each of which can be accurately tested in a minute or so. He charges that this approach is conceptually flawed and leads to harmful instructional practices. For example, the test of "oral reading fluency…equate(s) a score which represents correct words read in one minute with the totality of reading competently with comprehension." DIBELS does not assess comprehension.

He points out that speed-"reading" nonsense words, one of the subtests, could cause students to believe that reading does not involve making sense. Dialect differences, speaking English as a second language, and seeing fake words that look like real words all can induce confusion in children. Confirming Goodman's fears, one of the other essays in the book, by Robert Tierney and Elizabeth Thome, notes that publishers are now peddling nonsense word workbooks.

Not only do the subtests reduce reading to a few skills, they test only a fragment of even these narrow skills. DIBELS' approach rewards speed, which could lead to "children being drilled on doing each test as fast as possible." The exam's instructions, Goodman charges, are also hard to understand. Teachers must score kids on the fly while administering the test and paying attention to the student. While administering the test, teachers must use a stopwatch, which students find distracting. Because of these flaws, concludes Goodman, DIBELS "can not be administered and scored consistently."

Goodman adds that DIBELS appears to have one sensible, albeit optional, subtest - "Retelling." To most educators, this would be a means to evaluate student comprehension. But DIBELS retelling is scored simply by counting the number of words the student speaks in response to the teacher's questioning.

Reading, Goodman explains, is an ultimately qualitative act: making meaning from text. But DIBELS reduces reading to discrete skills that have at best minimal connection to actual reading. It then further shrinks these skills to a limited set of purely quantitative measures. As a result, he concludes, "Focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere" with it.

The DIBELS is being used in thousands of schools, often "chosen" under duress from the U.S. Department of Education, as revealed in the fiscal corruption investigation. The consequences of its use include drilling to nonsense words; focusing on narrow slices of what reading is; reducing if not eliminating the reading, writing and discussion of real stories; confusing students; and demeaning if not deskilling teachers.

As Tierney and Thome conclude, "DIBELS may be perpetuating the (race and class) literacy gap it has promised to eliminate… [The] definition of literacy has been narrowed for the most vulnerable students… Once again, the rich get richer and the poor are left only with the most basic of basics."

  • Examining DIBELS is available from the Vermont Society for the Study of Education. For ordering information, go to http://vsse.net/dibels/, a full site on DIBELS issues.