Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

DIBELS and other Nonsense Words that Sent Your Kid to Summer School

Here is an up close view of how DIBELS is operating in Buffalo. It's not pretty.

Note the stress on the important of student choice is reading. We need to talk about this every opportunity we get. We need to create opportunities.

by Bernadette Medige

ful, mik, zum, nuf, kun, fod, vep, juj, sug, ov, wam, buk, lef, luk,

lof, kom, nol, poz, ol, kav, kic, kis, tek, riz, aj, vej, som, zuz

If your kindergartener is in summer school, it is only because he or she can’t correctly read, with correct pronunciation, enough of these words in one minute. But wait, these are not even words. And it doesn’t matter if your child can actually read real ones. And it doesn’t matter if your child excels in every subject.

This is DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. It is neither dynamic nor indicative. It is a series of “assessments” that starts with Letter Naming Fluency and Initial Sound Fluency in Pre-K, moves on to Phoneme Segmentation Fluency and Nonsense Word Fluency in Kindergarten and continues through third grade with Oral Reading Fluency, sometimes accompanied with a retelling of the passage which must include the words you heard, no paraphrasing. Comprehension is not the goal, it is all about speed. An intelligent child trying to find context or meaning in this paragraph will be too slow. This continues through third grade. Five years of killing any chance your child will like to read or appreciate good literature.

If your child thoughtful and tries to decipher some meaning from these non-words it will slow him down and he will fail. If your child is in special education she may fail. If your child is an English Language Learner, he or she will be completely baffled by the fact that these are non-words and may pronounce letters the way they are pronounced in your native tongue, and fail. If your child has an accent other than his or her teacher’s, scoring this test accurately may prove impossible and s/he may fail. All of the above will be labeled “at-risk”, and may be forced to take these tests as often as every other week where the norm is three times a year. Your child will be expected to segment phenomes before he or she is developmentally equipped to do so. For some kids who don’t do well under pressure, or some kids who actually think, this means five years of failure.

Even if they actually read above grade level.

Do you even know segmenting phenomes means? My spell check doesn’t, but it is really itching to fix all those non-words. Here are some more:

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 te

zub wob jec oc rit def neb kif wab ov ruj

If your kindergartener’s teacher has so many students who mispronounce these syllables, she may receive a bad evaluation. Even if her students are reading on grade level or above. Even if she is a reading specialist with a master’s degree to prove it. Even if she is experienced, professional, cares deeply about her students and understands what will reach them. Instead, she is relegated to entering data into palm pilot as the child goes, for remote scoring, leaving no time to use her judgment and rendering her even more irrelevant and impotent. Each teacher is supplied a palm pilot and laptop as part of the program. This gives Big Brother access to her class’ statistics (to assess her “performance”) which are no more a reflection on her than the tests are on the children. She may teach a class of children who read very well but don’t DIBEL well.

If the school your child attends has so many children who can’t make sense of these non-words, it may be labeled as failing, and will probably be a part of the new District-within-a-District which will require a longer school day and year.

There might be sticky notes traveling across a chalkboard like a race horses on a track, keeping score, comparing kid to kid, teacher to teacher. Five-year-old kids, experienced teachers.

I wonder where George W. Bush’s scores would fall.

If your child gets bored during the 90 minute “reading” (phonics) blocks, or while waiting to get DIBELed, s/he may fidget, talk, act out and be labeled as a problem child. If the teacher stops DIBELing another kid to address this behavior and is caught, she will be reprimanded. The teacher won’t have an aide to help manage the rest of the class while the others are getting DIBELed.

If your child attends a Buffalo Public School and is in grades Pre-K through Third, his own her “reading” program will come from Harcourt, which requires that the teacher eliminate all books from the classroom except those which the reading series provides. This also eliminates the possibility of culturally-relevant books, books with content which can increase knowledge and vocabulary, books that bring joy to children, books of their choosing, which is so important to early literacy. Especially since library services have been cut at so many schools as well as the county system.

It also eliminates the flexibility of teachers to choose books that in her professional judgment will reach her students, enhance their learning and nurture their appreciation of literature. For example, Dr. Seuss can teach the same phonics lessons but is WAY more fun. There will be no opportunity to write unless the teacher takes time from other subjects to provide the opportunity. With the addition of hour long math blocks, there is precious little time left for science and social studies. This lack of instruction in writing takes its toll on the state ELA exam scores, which requires writing.

This is scripted drill-and-kill which is demeaning to teachers and hideously boring to children. There are walk-throughs by district-hired consultants to make sure all teachers in a given grade are on the same page on the same day, no deviations. That person will make sure the spelling words on the board are all the same, that the teacher has the manual in her arms (a series of three heavy, spiral bound books) and is teaching the program “with fidelity”. One teacher told me that she was reprimanded for having the wrong spelling words on the board. Her students already had mastered the ones assigned and she chose words she knew they needed to work on. She described a student who is so above grade level she has to “cheat” when nobody is looking and give her more challenging work. She also told me a colleague was reprimanded for cleaning up spilled glue during a reading block because it wasn’t in the script.

Dr. Folasade Oladele, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction who is overseeing the Reading First program in Buffalo, has stated on an oft-repeated public access program that “We don’t want teachers to be creative”. Dr. Oladele used to be a Professional Program Manager for CORE, Inc. which the Buffalo Public Schools now pays as consultants to do these walk-throughs.

If the teacher complains, she is harassed by extra walk-throughs and bad evaluations. (This is why I can’t name the teachers I spoke to. They are afraid of losing their jobs).

If she complains to her union, she is told that she must comply with the district’s chosen curriculum or risk being fired.

The kids hate it, the teachers hate it, the parents hardly know about it.

If you are School Board members Louis Petrucci and Catherine Nugent Panepinto you will “question the use of an assessment test called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, as the sole criterion to determine whether a child is required to attend summer school” according to the Buffalo News. This single criterion also determines if children must repeat a grade. Petrucci asked on WNED radio why kids with very good report cards were assigned to summer school.

If you are Superintendent James Williams you will appear in advertising for DIBELS that claims “Special education referrals and classifications have also decreased at BPS Reading First schools.” What it does not tell you is that teachers have been instructed not to make new referrals for special education, according to several I spoke to.

If you are among the new board members you probably recognize that the Superintendent is supposed to answer to the Board, not vice-versa as has been the case in recent years. What you may not know is that there is that none of you, including Williams, has much choice about using DIBELS (although he has clearly drunk the kool-aid). The Bush administration can withholds Title 1/Reading First funding from districts not using it. But you, as a new board member, can make it less oppressive by demanding that additional criteria be used to determine need for summer school and repeating grades; reducing the amount of testing for “at-risk” kids, freeing up time for actual instruction; and not using it as an evaluation tool for teachers.

If you are knowledgeable about the Bush administration, you know its history of awarding contracts to friends and appointing business associates to departments with which they have a clear conflict of interest. The Education Department is no exception. Three former members of a DOE committee that reviews products that educators use to assess children's reading progress benefited financially from the sale of DIBELS, either directly or bundled with their scripted reading curricula that teaches to the test. The inventors of DIBELS sit on a DOE panel that approves Reading First grant applications. This is a useless test that serves only to extort money from public schools for Bush’s friends.

If you live in New York, you live in one of the 36 states that do not require children to attend kindergarten and one of 8 states that don’t even require every district to offer it. “By pressuring states to require use of DIBELS in kindergarten the federal government is in effect mandating kindergarten, taking away parental choice and depriving children a small part of childhood.” Writes Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus of Language, Reading and Culture, University of Arizona, editor of the book Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it Does. Some New York districts will no doubt have to pay not just for the tests but for the addition of kindergarten classes in which to implement them.

This is Bush’s Orwellian world. An end-run around state departments of education and democratically elected school boards, creating mandates that benefit only his donors, strain school budgets and sort children in one minute. This is Bush’s brand of “Apartheid Education” as Jonathan Kozol calls it; or “neo-Eugenic” 60-second sorting tool” to teacher Jim Horn, PhD. All while the Bush Supreme Court ushers in a new era of Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Schools that don’t need Title 1 money are exempt.

In 1986 Robert Fulghum wrote a book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I didn’t read it, but it spawned a poster that summed up the book’s sentiment that anybody who has been in or near a school has seen. Click on it so you can read it. “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.” Fulghum wrote over twenty years ago. Back then, kindergarten was a time for socialization, play-based lessons and basic courtesies for getting along with others. It was fun and relaxed. Now it is dreary and competitive and our kids are starting to handle conflicts with violence because they don’t learn those life skills.

“Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Fulgrum wrote, “Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.”

— Bernadette Medige
Buffalo Reportl


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.