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DIBELS and other Standardista Horrors: On Asking Primary Graders If They've Read a Good Book Lately

Posted: 2005-03-08

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Susan Ohanian


March 2005

I asked a group of first graders to tell me what happened to Little Red Riding Hood, and as they talked, I recorded their words on an overhead transparency: ?Once upon a time there was a little girl, and her name was Little Red Riding Hood. Her mother baked some chocolate chip cookies for her grandmother who was very ill. So she took the basket of fruit to her grandmother. She was on her way with the basket to her grandmother?s house, but she met a wolf. . . .?

The children did not notice this textual discontinuity until I asked them, ?Hey, what was really in that basket?? This question set off a search in various versions of the tale. Intent on tracking down the mystery, the children unearthed 32 versions of the tale. Dougie, labeled a reluctant reader, persuaded his mother to drive him to a nearby town so he could see if they had different versions in the library there.

Of course, the real point wasn?t what was in the basket, and I did not pose a high stakes Standardisto-type question:

Name the item in the basket Little Red Riding Hood carried:

a) chocolate chip cookies

b) fruit

c) custard

d) wine

My point was not to interrogate children but to introduce them to textual analysis. In looking at the basket, they discovered all sorts of other textual anomalies in this famous tale, and more importantly, they discovered that no single text is sacred. No single text tells the whole store. Those first graders learned that different writers see things in different ways. They learned that words are important.

Of course this doesn?t qualify as scientific-based instruction under federal fiats. We did this without DIBELS. Imagine that.

In The Girl with the Brown Crayon, Vivian Gussin Paley wrote a remarkable account of the final year in her long career as a kindergarten teacher, a career. Paley follows not the tenets of the so-called science of reading but of Reeny, a little girl with a fondness for the color brown and an astounding sense of herself (?This brown girl that?s dancing in me?). Paley reflects that Reeney has entered school ?looking for a Frederick, a something to ponder deeply and expand upon extravagantly.?

And so Paley and the kindergartners embark on a year-long study of the works of Reeny?s kindred spirit, Leo Lionni. Here is Paley, who won a MacArthur "genius" award for her work in her classroom at the University of Chicago Laboratory School , describing the project: ?Is it possible for a kindergarten class to pursue such an intensely literary and, yes, long-term intellectual activity, one that demands powers of analysis and introspection expected of much older students? Why not? I have seen five- and six-year-olds debate their concerns with as much fervor and insight as could any group of adults. Leo Lionni will make the existing intellectual life of the classroom more accessible because he offers us a clear and consistent frame of reference for our feelings and observations.?

Feelings and observations. These are key elements in this intellectual pursuit, and they are the very elements missing in the Standardisto science-of-reading clamor for skills. In contrast, take a look at these kindergarten standards from Indiana, which are typical of the offal sweeping the country in the name of scientific-based instruction.

Phonemic Awareness

K.1.7 Listen to two or three phonemes (sounds) when they are read aloud, and tell the number of sounds heard, whether they are the same or different, and the order.

Example: Listen to the sounds /f/, /m/, /s/ or /l/, /n/, /v/. Tell how many sounds were heard and whether any sounds were the same.

K.1.8 Listen and say the changes in spoken syllables (a word or part of a word that contains one vowel sound) and words with two or three sounds when one sound is added, substituted, omitted, moved, or repeated.

Example: Listen to the word bat and tell what word is left when you take the /b/ sound away. Tell what word is left when you take the /br/ sound away from the spoken word brother.

K.1.9 Blend consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) sounds aloud to make words.

Example: Listen to the sounds /b/, /e/, /d/ and tell what word is made.

Nationwide, primary graders are DIBELed to death. After drilling endlessly on reading make-believe words, students are tested on Benchmark K-3: DIBELS Nonsense Word Fluency.

hoj rij ad bol em

buv haj en wof loj

tuc rul vab fum han

hol mun yud dav dub

paj jav lak diz nom

vif kon juf miz vuv

zep yac dac jom rej

zuz vum zus tej zub

wob jec oc rit def

neb kif wab ov ruj

Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills 6th edition Kindergarten Scoring Booklet DIBELS Benchmark Assessment

available online

Mining Children?s Literature

Books are still recommended in Indiana. To go along with the state?s Academic Standards, Indiana?s Education Roundtable, chaired by the governor, approved a reading list to ?illustrate the quality and complexity of the suggested reading materials.? The Little Engine That Could is there, but Leo Lionni?s work is absent. Not a single title Lionni made the cut. Goodnight Moon is there but Rotten Ralph isn?t. Galileo and the Magic Numbers is there; Captain Underpants and Ricky Ricotta aren?t And so on. All reading lists are, by definition, inadequate. All will come up short in capturing the quirky passions of readers encouraged to explore and choose books on their own.

Indiana?s Education Roundtable?s links are significant: Achieve, Inc., The American Diploma Project, American Federation of Teachers, The Business Roundtable, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, The Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Illumination on these links is provided in Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian.

Indiana is, of course, not unique. Nationwide, Standardista edicts turn the children?s garden into a skill delivery zone. And as children progress through the grades, things just get worse. Below is a test passage from the 2003 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) for Grade 3 in which children are asked to read ?The Hen and the Apple Tree,? a selection from Arnold Lobel?s Fables. Third graders enjoy talking about the moral of this fable: It is always difficult to pose as something one is not. But the testmakers, in their wisdom, avoid any talk about deep significances. Instead, they assess children's understanding and appreciation of this fable by asking them to identify such arbitrary and even artificial items as a noun and a compound word.

Here we get the one reading comprehension item on the test.

39) In this fable, the wolf is sneaky because he

a) goes away hungry.

b) talks to the Hen.

c) slams the window shut.

d) pretends to be a tree.

This item is labeled as testing Reading and Literature Standard 16: Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the themes, structure, and elements of myths, traditional narratives, and classical literature and provide evidence from the test to support their understanding.

Next, the student must give a definition.

40. What is the MAIN reason "The Hen and the Apple Tree" is called a fable?

a) It gives the time and place of the action.

b) It has animals talking to each other, and there is a lesson to learn.

c) It teaches about how trees and animals get along with each other.

d) It tells about something that happened long ago.

This test item is labeled Reading and Literature Standard 10: Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the characteristics of different genres. Clearly, the question has nothing to do with reading comprehension. The student doesn?t need to read the fable: Either he has memorized the definition or he hasn't.

No reading test is complete without addressing vocabulary. This test item is labeled Language Standard 4: Students will understand and acquire new vocabulary and use it correctly in reading and writing.

41. Read the sentence below.

The tree began to quiver and shake. All of its leaves quickly dropped off.

What does quiver mean?

a) to escape

b) to tremble

c) to whisper

d) to sparkle

Here is another test item labeled Language Standard 4.

42. Read this sentence: She saw an apple tree growing in her backyard.

The word backyard is a

a) proper noun.

b) contraction.

c) compound word.

d) verb.


And so we see that only one of the four questions requires reading the passage. Even more serious than the issue of bad questions is the impropriety of mining beloved children's literature for test items. Arnold Lobel is dead and cannot protest this desecration of his work. The publisher who allowed this assault on children's literature is HarperCollins.

Children learn from everything they encounter. Now, third graders across Massachusetts are left with the indelible mark--stamped on them by the state of Massachusetts--that literature is about nouns and compound words.

Okay to Be Different

At age eleven, Charles was three years older than the average third grader in my class, and when I agreed to mainstream him his special education teacher cautioned, ?Charles can be a little strange.? Indeed he could. And he revealed just how conscious he was of his own strangeness the day he vomited. After the mess was cleaned up, Charles started crying and moaning, ?I?m a weirdo and a retard. I never can do anything right.? Immediately, Charles? classmates, who?d never really warmed up to him but never bothered him either, came to the rescue. ?Everybody vomits sometimes,? they reassured Charles. Then each had a vomit story to tell?as proof that Charles was behaving normally. Finally I announced, ?Enough sharing,? and pushed on with the lesson. But children continued to worry over Charles, sneaking to his desk with another whispered ?My Most Embarrassing Vomit.? Weeks later when we encountered vomitrocious in a story by Dick Gackenbach, it became the kids? mantra.

When we faced the annual standardized tests in the spring, I wondered what could be worse than isolated questions about ugly paragraphs. At least, in those good old days, the tests were mercifully short and not high stakes. Before I caught him, Charles had marked all four of the possible answers for the first three questions. I did something that would probably get me de-certified and labeled a criminal these days. I made Charles erase all the answers and then I pleaded, ?Try, Charles, please try! I know you?re nervous, but I also know you can do it. Just think of all the books you?ve read this year. Okay, so this test isn?t nice to read, but how about showing the people who made this test that you can read?? Try he did, and he showed those people that he could read on what they call a 3.2 grade level.

After the tests, I read a story aloud and urged the children to relax, mess around, and unwind. Charles started talking to Sam, the brightly colored papier-m?ch? parrot that hung over the book table. He showed Sam all the pictures in a book and then started reading to him. Then he began chanting, ?Fly, Sam, fly! I know you can do it. Please try, Sam! You may be nervous, but you can fly.? Then he whispered, ?Would you teach me to fly, Sam??

Charles was scared about going to fourth grade and begged me to let him stay another year as my aide. ?I know where everything is,? he coaxed. His special ed teacher and I actually thought it was a good idea, but then his mother wrote a note asking us to give him a Sex Ed talk, and we had to acknowledge that this almost-twelve-year-old couldn?t stay with next season?s eight-year-olds.

During the last week of school I asked the children to choose their favorite book of the year and to come up with a way to share the good news with others. Charles was immediately enthusiastic. ?I know which one I want!? he exclaimed. I thought I knew too. Surely he?d choose the dinosaur book that never left his side?or Rumpelstiltskin, which he?d read sixteen days in a row (and then I stopped counting).

But Charles surprised me. He went to the bookcase and dug out a book he had hidden behind several others. It was The Ugly Duckling.

Charles, who had never written more than six sentences on any topic all year, wrote nine pages. He told me he was going to send his report to the newspaper so everyone could know how important this book is. This was the first sentence of Charles? report: ?The ugly duckling found out it is okay to be different.?

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