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DIBELS Test: A Question Of Validity

Monday, March 26, 2007

In Montgomery County public schools, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test, or DIBELS, is used as a screening tool for kindergarten through second grade students, said Ann Bedford, K-12 curriculum development director.

In Anne Arundel County public schools, DIBELS is used from kindergarten through second grade "as a predictor and as a benchmark to see how kids are doing," said Kim Callison, coordinator for elementary reading and language arts. Teachers use it "for instructional decision-making."

The different purposes point to a heated debate among testing experts about the validity of DIBELS, which is given annually to about 2 million schoolchildren in the United States -- sometimes as often as three times a semester.

The test was created at the University of Oregon and has become prominent in the era of President Bush's Reading First program, which seeks to ensure that every child is able to read well by the third grade.

DIBELS has been championed as "scientifically valid" by administration officials seeking to advance the teaching of reading through an emphasis on phonics.

According to the DIBELS Web site ( http://dibels.uoregon.edu), the test is a set of standardized, individually administered measures of early literacy development. They are designed to be one-minute "fluency measures used to regularly monitor the development of pre-reading and early reading skills."

Early childhood expert Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development, said DIBELS has "very, very weak validity," and numerous other critics have gone further.

"It is an absurd set of silly little one-minute tests that never get close to measuring what reading is really about -- making sense of print," wrote Kenneth S. Goodman, a professor at the University of Arizona who is a past president of the International Reading Association, in his book "The Truth About DIBELS."

Goodman and others say the mini quizzes focus on only a few specific skills that do not encompass everything needed for comprehensive reading instruction. The emphasis on speed, they say, is misplaced in reading development.

The quizzes include one in which students are supposed to read made-up words as fast as they can, called the Nonsense Word Fluency measure. Another asks students to read short passages out loud as fast as they can.

Critics also say DIBELS is being used as a curriculum guide in many classrooms where teachers, whose jobs may depend on student test scores, are eager to improve their charges' DIBELS scores.

Tests are supposed to have one purpose, but Goodman, Meisels and others say the fact that different classes are using it for different things means many of the results are invalid.

-- Valerie Strauss

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