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A silly little test

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By Alis Headlam

In September children will enter school and begin annual testing in literacy. One of the newest tests to hit the local schools is called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills Test (DIBELS). It is on the recommended list of assessments for early literacy tests under Title I of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This gives it an authoritative power that encourages schools to opt for it to complete eligibility requirements. Schools like it because it is simple to give, it takes little time per child to administer and results are immediately available.

Its makers recommend that it be given three times a year beginning in September, even for kindergartners. They claim that the test measures potential reading success by examining how many responses children in kindergarten through grade three (in some schools beyond third grade) can give in one minute to a number of prompts. The whole test takes from four to 10 minutes to administer to a single child. Even though this may seem like a short amount of time, a class of 20 students could potentially take two or three mornings to test. When this happens three times a year, that would mean that six to nine mornings of potential instruction are lost just on this one assessment.

The test asks kindergartners to identify letters of the alphabet from a random list, to say the initial sounds of words after looking at a picture, to use words prompted orally in a sentence, to identify the sounds in a word given in an oral prompt, and by the middle of kindergarten to be able to read a list of nonsense words. Each subtest allows the child only one minute to respond while the tester sits with a stop watch and marks a response sheet. (More information is available at: http://dibels.uoregon.edu.)

When I asked graduate students in a teacher preparation program to take sample exercises from the test, some found it so stressful they refused to take the test. Stories from the field document children who respond with the same stress, but children have no choice to opt out.

Kenneth S. Goodman, professor emeritus in language, reading and culture from the University of Arizona, calls it a silly little test. But to tell the truth, I think we should be more concerned about the newest fad that is sweeping our education community. Schools all over the country are opting for this short test of skills to make life-altering decisions about the placement of children in remedial reading classes and for grade level retention

What the test really tests is the ability of a child to respond quickly and accurately. With a one-minute time frame for response, time taken to think about an answer results in a lower score. Parents and teachers who try to prepare children to pass the test focus on improving speed of response and accuracy.

While the test makers praise the test for enhancing instruction, parents, children and teachers all over the country are finding that the test creates undue stress and labels children so early in their educational experience that many children have not had time to adjust to school before they are placed in remedial situations. Teaching to the test results in repetitive tasks designed to build speed and accuracy while "real" reading is left for some other time.

What the makers of this test don't pursue is the child's ability to get meaning from text. Emphasis is on the ability to produce words quickly. Even the vocabulary subtest relies on the number of words produced rather than the meaning that is generated. In a comprehension subtest for the older grades, comprehension is judged by the number of words in a retelling. Quality of the retelling and the child's ability to get meaning from a passage are not assessed. Critiques say that this lack of emphasis on meaning creates an unfair image of children who are already reading and places them at risk of being mislabeled, even placed into remedial programs. This is an assessment that is dangerous because of its potential to harm children when the results are misused and parents are misled to believe that their children are deficient as potential learners.

No single assessment should ever be used to predict future success. This particular assessment strategy leaves little room for other input. Parents need to beware.

Stories from parents and discouraged educators are available through several Web sites including: http://www.susanohanian.org and http://www.vsse.net.



Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.

— Alis Headlam
Rutland Herald
2006-08-24


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