Monday, April 23, 2012

DIBELS: Harming Students and Wasting Money

Ask some primary teachers what they'll be doing in language arts from now to the end of the year and you'll probably hear, "Dibeling."  It's not a teaching method, it's another test taking up valuable teaching time.  

The Scoop on DIBELS
What makes DIBELS the perfect literacy test is that it takes total control of the academic futures and school lives of the children it reaches from the first day they enter kindergarten when they are barely five years old. It keeps control of their literacy development and indeed their whole school experience for four years from kindergarten through third grade.. And the more poorly the children respond to DIBELS the more they experience it. Norm referenced tests usually are not given until third grade and then only once a year. Diagnostic tests are usually used selectively with pupils to provide teachers with information on what strengths and weaknesses learners may have. DIBELS, once it gains a foothold, is administered a minimum of three times a year at the beginning, middle and end of each grade from kindergarten to third.

There are many things wrong with DIBELS. It turns reading into a set of abstract decontextualized tasks that can be measured in one minute. It makes little children race with a stop watch. It values speed over thoughtful responses. It takes over the curriculum leaving no time for science, social studies, writing, not to mention art music and play. It ignores and even penalizes children for the knowledge and reading ability they may have already achieved.

From DIBELS, the perfect literacy test, just like Katrina was the perfect storm: Entire article here.

The Truth About DIBELS: What it is, What it does is a 70 page report lambasting the DIBELS process.

DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students (they end up engaging in curricular activities that do not promote their progress as readers) and bad for teachers (it requires them to judge student progress and shape instruction based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development).

But it is Scientifically valid, right?  

I haven’t even tried to touch on the larger issues, such as whether state reading tests are a good measure of reading competence, let alone what kind of instruction best benefits struggling readers. But DIBELS fails on  the most basic grounds of validity; that is, whether it measures what it claims to be measuring. As Kenneth Goodman stated earlier in this volume, scores on reading tests tend to correlate highly with each other no matter what. But the DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency subtest claims to do something more: to strongly predict whether individual children are likely to fail to learn to read. It just doesn’t.

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."

More at Dibels Hurts Children at

So, Why are We DIBELING?
The Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Education has found numerous legal and ethical violations in how the department steered funds toward favored programs, particularly Direct Instruction, makers of the DIBELS test (see "DIBELS," this issue).

More at Reading First Financial Corruption

A final note: from the perspective of an art teacher who also substituted in Kindergarten and had to DIBEL

Yesterday, as a sub, I helped some really cute little Kindergarteners practice for DIBELS testing. I had to set a timer for 1 minute and kids had to read a list of nonsense words and I had to record how many correct letter sounds they got in a minute. Some kids had to pause to figure out if it was a d sound or a b sound (this confused some kids) so their score was low, and this test is about speed, not much else. 

It is crazy that teachers are required to put these little children through this. I joked and talked with the kids for a little while to make it fun. I told them I'll be coming in to teach them art next month, and they were real excited about that. This has got to be the most ridiculous test ever, and developmentally inappropriate, but teachers told me "it's the law of the land" and they have to do it. Also, there's a huge bulletin board about testing and measuring reading progress outside in the hallway, and I watched the reading consultant spend the afternoon working on this elaborate board, which used to display student work. These are 5 and 6 year olds!!!!!


  1. Nice post! Thanks for including my experience with DIBELS. When my son was in Kindergarten 6 years ago he took this ridiculous test and I wondered why they were confusing kids with nonsense words, after spending so much time on learning sight words. Made no sense. And this test has been going on for far too long. I am not certified in reading or early childhood, so I just trusted the school and never looked into DIBELS. I am shocked at how teachers can just go along with this. Any kind of testing, except for maybe diagnostic purposes, on 5 and 6 year olds is developmentally inappropriate, not to mention inconsistent and unreliable. How can teachers and administrators just ignore what they know about child development? And these little babies are getting penalized for stopping to think about their answers! It's sick.

  2. I hate the dibels testing. I don't even waste my time with it. They give me the books and I fill them out. My students are so much more than a dibels test. They are kids but we want to turn them into robots that can spit out answers in a minute.

  3. I was very verbal about my dislike for DIBELS testing/remediation when I taught 2nd grade a couple of years ago. Thirteen of my students were identified at various levels of DIBEL interventional need. I have a minor in Reading Disabilities and had been teaching 20 yrs., and knew that only 3 were "at risk". I refused to use the approved workbooks published by Roland Good's publishing firm,and I refused to teach consonants in insolation,and used a variety of approaches to meet the individual needs of my young readers. I dutifully sent my children off to a Title 1 Aide(no teaching degree)three to four days a week, who used a stop watch to time their reading, and loudly insisted that "B" says /buh/. It was not unusual for several of them to come back crying when it was Benchmark testing time. When the Jan. testing was done, my students showed wonderful progress. I was then accused by the district title l teachers who tested them, of pre-teaching the reading samples and being unethical. I was devastated and angry. My principal was sympathetic, but did not stand up for me to the district reading administrator. He threatened to pull our Title I money,which was possible since we are a private school, if I didn't "see the Dibled light". Some teachers who had no problem with their students being pulled out of their classrooms for Title I remediation for up to an hour, now saw me as the enemy.
    When June rolled around, only three of my students did not meet their reading goals. (One, had an IEP.) By Jan. of the next school year, 9 of those students were again idenitified as in need of intervention,and were back in the Title 1 program. No questions were asked except by a parent who was told that perhaps the parents' marital problems were influencing his reading problems. EEE!!
    I am now teaching 5th grade and have those same students. Guess what? They can all read fast, but have little or no comprehension of what they've read. We've given up our children to a program that promotes failure,and keeps the Title l program funded and"showing wonderful progress in reading", and a group of snake oil salesmen from Oregon raking in the money from their various DIBELS related publishing and workshop enterprises. Retirement is looking better and better.