May 24, 2011

The Controversy Surrounding the DIBELS Literacy Test

DIBELS is a literacy test that is an acronym for the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills. The test was 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. According to Education Week, DIBELS has “become a catchphrase in the schoolhouse and the statehouse.” (Manzo, Education Week, 9/28/2005)

DIBELS assesses three of the five components of literacy development. Through different instruments, DIBELS assesses phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle and fluency

If a school is receiving a Reading First grant, it is generally expected that all K – 3 children enrolled in a Reading First school participate in the DIBELS and other Reading First required assessments.

Listed here are the names of the individual DIBELS literacy tests.

Letter Naming Fluency: The child is given a page with lines of mixed capital and lower case letters in a font that is not the most common one in early reading material. The score is the number of letters correctly named in one minute. If the child says a sound instead of a letter she is told “names not sounds”, but only once.

Initial Sound Fluency: The child is shown a page with four pictures. The tester says a word for each picture and then asks which picture starts with “buh”. The child must remember the names of the pictures and then abstract out the first sound. The picture may look like a bear but the tester called it a cub. That big yellow grasshopper was called an insect. The score is the number of right initial sounds the child can say in 1 minute.

Phonemic Segmentation Fluency: The tester has a sheet of one-syllable words. If the tester says “cat” the child must respond kuh- ah- tuh in a few seconds. One point for each correct sound produced in one minute.

Nonsense Word Fluency: The child is given a sheet of two or three letter “make-believe” words. The tester tells the child to either say the whole word or each sound. In either case, the score is the number of sounds right in one minute.

Oral Reading Fluency: Starting in first grade the children are given a five-paragraph essay on a topic written in first person. The score is the number of words read correctly in one minute. The children learn to skip any words they don’t know and say the words they know as fast as they can. The tester says any word the child stops at, after a few seconds.

Oral Re-telling Fluency: Teachers complained that counting correct words didn’t show what the children understood. So the DIBELS folks added an oral retelling. The score is the number of words the kids produce in one minute that are more or less on topic. No attention is paid to the quality of the retelling. Honest.

Word Use Fluency: Starting in kindergarten, the tester says a word and tells the child to “use the word”. The score is the number of words the child uses in one minute. Such tests have sometimes been called test-teach-test models. In that model a pre-test is given, then the content is taught and then a post-test measures gain. DIBELS uses a test-test-test model because increasingly frequent testing is the outcome for of those who fail to achieve the benchmarks of DIBELS.

Opponents of DIBELS

  • DIBELS is a package of sub-tests designed to be administered in 1 minute each. Its basic premise is that it can reduce reading development to a series of tasks, each measurable in one improbable minute.
  • Each test has arbitrary “benchmarks” which get more difficult to achieve in successive grades. The test authors claim that the sub-tests are “stepping stones” to reading proficiency and each prepares the child for the next test. That means that children who fail one test are failing in reading development according to the authors.
  • Children are being retained in kindergarten and first grade solely because they fail one sub-test in DIBELS.
  • Additionally, only a small number of states require children to attend kindergarten. So children entering school without kindergarten are already a year behind from the DIBELS perspective.
  • DIBELS provides no time for thoughtful responses. It allows for only one speed: fast. Each test is administered with a stopwatch in hand. Children are permitted three seconds for each response and the test is stopped at one minute or when the child is wrong on five items.

Proponents of DIBELS

  • DIBELS testing is intended to measure student progress in key aspects of early literacy acquisition and to assist with identification of at-risk students.
  • The goals/benchmarks were developed following a large group of students in a longitudinal manner to see where students who were "readers" in later grades were performing on these critical early literacy skills when they were in Kindergarten and First grade so that predictions could be made about which students progress adequately or which students may need additional instructional support.
  • Within a few days of entering school, five-year-olds have their first opportunity to work toward DIBELS benchmarks. Each month DIBELS is also used to “monitor progress” and those who are marked for “intensive instruction” are monitored weekly.

The vision is one of changing the future, of building futures for children. There are some children who will learn to read in spite of anything we do, there are other children who will learn to read because of what we do—and for those children, we can change the future.—Roland H. Good, III, PhD

What do you think about DIBELS, NCLB, and the struggle of reluctant readers in the classroom?

Sources: Ken Goodman, Good & Kaminski, 2002.

The Reading Horizons elementary reading curriculum helps students master many of the skills tested in the DIBELS literacy test. 


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R. Davis said

Students are undergoing DIBELS evaluation as I speak.
The surroundings are perfect. The evaluators-not always teachers-are very friendly and the student is put at ease.
All of this is very good-the student reads.
However, the student is not only graded on correct words per minute read
But could you also tell me about the story you just read.

Simple training would involve:
What is the title of the story.
What was the topic sentence of the first papragraph.
Three details of events that happened in the story
(possibly topics of paragraphs 1 through three)

Students are not trained in retell--they need to be. Of many oversights in our educational system this my be one of the bigger ones. Students are not stupid, they just need to know and practice what is expected of them..

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Lise said

I am a tutor of 20 years in reading and nearly have a level II certification in Wilson Reading System. I took a student through the Wilson program and she can now read books two years higher than her grade level yet scored out as needing intervention on the Dibels. Go figure....

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Mark said

DIBELS is an assessment. It is up to the teacher to professionally interpret the findings of that assessment. Too often, teachers (and government) blindly follow test results. A doctor, knowing that you do not show any other symptoms of diabetes, will question a high blood sugar result and find that you probably did not fast properly before the blood test. Likewise, if a strong reader suddenly scores as "needing intervention" on DIBELS, any teacher worth his/her license should realize that the student needs to retake the test on a better day.

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Michael said

I have been teaching full time for the last 34 years. Most children learned to read just fine before they had to take stopwatch tests. What is happening in schools today is Readicide; the intentional killing of the love of reading. Our school's library has half of the funds it had 15 years ago when it was a ""school of excellence"". Money is being taken from children's book funds and sent to Rupert Murdoch's Wireless Generation for DIBELS testing. Instead of reading with their students, teachers are drilling nonsense words to pass assessments which have no correlation with reading comprehension. Enough testing. Leave us alone and let us teach. We know more about children and how to teach reading than those who have never taught a child to read.

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