"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, April 28, 2006

DIBELS and the Science of the 60-Second Sorting Machine

If you are a teacher or young parent wondering about or contending with the the new Caucasian "science" of reading assessment (DIBELS) dreamed up by Sopris West top sellers, Good & Kaminski, who have the blessing of Carnine & Lyon, who have the blessing of W. Bush & the science guy, Grover W. (you get the picture), you need to be aware of this site, (Not the Official) DIBELS Clearinghouse. Largely the work of Susan Ohanian and Ken Goodman, you will find a wealth of information here on what Goodman calls "the perfect literacy test." Here is a clip from a Goodman article explaining why:
. . . . But the perfect test is not like any of the traditional tests in popular use. It is not “norm referenced” like the Iowa or Stanford tests which are widely used to measure achievement. It is not like the barrage of high-stakes state “criterion referenced tests” promulgated to test reading and writing and judge whether pupils can pass from grade to grade or receive a high school diploma. It is not the National Assessment of Educational Progress which has been used to paint dire pictures of whole states failing to produce proficient readers and writers.

No, the perfect Literacy test is the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills developed by a federally funded group at the University of Oregon. It is being widely mandated as part of the No Child Left Behind plan each state must submit to the federal bureaucracy that controls NCLB funding. It’s acronym DIBELS has, according to Education Week, “become a catchphrase in the schoolhouse and the statehouse.” (Manzo, Education Week, 9/28/2005)

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. . . .

So now the neo-eugenicists can begin in kindergarten with their beat-the-clock testing to sort and fail the innocents who have no awareness of their economic or linguistic deficits until they fail a 60-second test. No need for those messy, time-consuming, IQ tests that were used early in the last century to sort the poor and the brown.

Fortunately, there are stories of resistance like this one that came in a letter to Susan Ohanian, from the (Not the Official) DIBELS Clearinghouse):

As I finish the preliminary work in my first year of my Master's program I am taking a break from writing to send you a note.

The final paper for my pilot action research project is entitled "What's Wrong With DIBELS?" (everything). I wanted to write and thank you. I have cited you countless times and used so much information from your website. You are an inspiration and a champion for children.

I also wanted to let you know that my kindergarten class will be performing for the Parent Teacher Organization meeting next month. We are singing Stuart Stotts' "So Many Ways to Be Smart" from the No Child Left Behind - Bring Back the Joy CD. In the final verse Stuart sings "some folks are good at doing their best, though it's hard to measure on a standardized test" - the choreography for that verse is sixteen kindergarteners ripping a DIBELS test recording form! Ay yay yay!

You are cordially invited . . . .

DIBELS is a high-stakes test in our district, and I am doing everything I can to raise awareness about it and advocate for balanced literacy instruction. It is an uphill battle to say the least. Our district has cooked up a "corrective action reading plan" for kindergarten teachers who fail to show 95% of children at benchmark for Phoneme Segmentation Fluency - the plan is yet to be revealed, presumably once our scores are posted in May we'll find out the nature of our punishment.

In my school, kinders are pulled out of the classroom and away from real literature and language experiences for DIBELS "interventions" - the same drill and kill skills practice everyday to boost DIBELS scores.


We are much too busy watching caterpillars pupate and fiddler crabs molt. Last week we found a bat roosting outside our classroom door - one of my students hollered "WAIT - we have to go to the library and get some books so we can learn about it!" - so we dropped everything and that's what we did.

Alas, the next day we found the bat dead on the sidewalk. . . I sealed it in a plastic bag with it's wings outstretched so we could study it for the day before it started to decay. Don't tell the school board.

Next week we're collaborating with fourth-graders to build a bat house so the bats on our campus have a safe place to roost.

Just wanted to share a dispatch from the resistance.

What we need now are 2 million more new teachers working in solidarity with the moral courage of this one.


  1. I am outraged to find out that my son's district is planning on introducing this horrid test this year (2008). My son starts kindergarten and I don't want his first year to be "test happy."

    As a language arts teacher myself, I am appalled that this is the direction the district is taking.
    1.20.09 can't come soon enough - -hopeful the vote will help end the NCLB testing madness.

    thanks for sharing - Connie Rice

  2. Anonymous8:58 AM

    We have just instituted the DIBELS testing at my school and have been "trained" to us the Nokias. As I sat in the training session, which took my out of my classroom for an hour, I wondered how many caring, effective teachers could have been hired with the money that was spent on purchasing the license for this "program". And if I had more time in my classroom instead of having to monitor progress on the "at risk" students every two weeks, then maybe I COULD PLAY MORE GAMES AND TEACH THEM WHAT THEY REALLY NEED TO KNOW< WHICH IS HOW TO READ!!!!