The Problem with DIBELS

educationBy A. B. Thomas

Working closely with the educational program in Alberta, Canada, A.B. Thomas has found some discrepancies in the use of DIBELS readiness tests.  His investigations have brought him in close contact with several families whose children have been impacted by DIBELS testing.  As our children return to school, we might wish to reflect on the shape of their education and how it will effect their learning years.
The issue at first seemed to be clear: The right of parents to say ‘no’ to the use of the DIBELS assessment tool on their child. The result of the parental right to deny consent eddied itself in to the very bowels of the administrative hell. It has led to the bullying of parents by a principal through veiled threats and actions to deter other parents from taking similar stands against the school board. Because of COA legislation (COA meaning covering our asses) by the Alberta Teachers Association and school board regulations, who have deemed that they are above ordinary criminal behaviour and therefore protect their guilty employees from being publicly acknowledged, it can’t be written that the school in question is St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School in the Red Deer Catholic Regional Division No. 39. It cannot be written that Principal of the school is G. D. , the teachers involved are J. S. , P. C. , and S. J. . Readers will just have to take settle with an unknown school in an unknown region with unknown e-duh-cators and ad- minimal-strator in order to maintain the elitist privileges of the educational monopoly. Sadly, the discovery of the DIBELS debackle for one set of parents turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. In order to keep this article at a suitable length, the other issues of the unethical behaviour of the principal and the teachers will not be discussed at this time.

To understand the origin of the farce that is being cruelly played out, it is best to begin with the central issue to the parents: DIBELS. The propaganda for DIBELS from the DIBELS web site states: “The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are a set of standardized, individually administered measures of early literacy development. They are designed to be short (one minute) fluency measures used to regularly monitor the development of pre-reading and early reading skills.” The fluency measures are delivered orally as well as answered orally, the answers and the speed of those answers determine where the child is situated on the range graph of reading comprehension. The raw scores of from the DIBELS tester is then sent off to be officially tabulated then a score result on a graph with the mean scores of the child’s peer group is supposed to be sent to the parents. The assessment is given three times a year.

For two parents they felt that the the DIBELS assessment would do far more harm to their child than good. Their son had been coded with a speech delay that they felt would hinder their child in pronouncing the words correctly therefore giving a misleading result of their child’s reading comprehension level. This is a concern shared by many parents about DIBELS and its oral presentation and answering format; children who have speech impediments, hearing impediments or attention disorders as well as children with English as a second language do not have the vocal skills that will allow them to pronounce the words exactly the way they are supposed to.

The second part of the parent’s decision not to allow their son to participate in the DIBELS assessment was the matter of the one minute time for each DIBELS part. Their son was diagnosed with an anxiety /depressive disorder by the school hired psychologist. The tests, being short and with their son’s delayed speech, they felt that the time frame for the assessment would only add anxiety to their son. The psychologist agreed that a timed exam would not be in the best interests of their son. The informed the principal of the school that they would not support the use of DIBELS on their son.

Over the course of the year the parents became concerned; their son’s printing which had been quite well degraded into incoherent scrawls, his attitude was defeatist and their son tried every morning to get out of going to school. They asked the teacher several times if there was anything going on in the classes that they should be aware of, but the teacher reported that nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. In late May, when their son had attempted for the tenth time to say that he was too sick to attend school, they asked what was really bothering him. His response was that he didn’t want to fail another one of Miss S’s tests. The parents were perplexed, Miss S, the special education coordinator, as far as they had been told, was only listening to their son read, what test was being given? The parents confronted the special education coordinator about what was going on; which she retreated from and which resulted in the principal phoning the parents and informing them that Miss S, against their wishes and without their knowledge, had been administering the DIBELS test.

The parents were stunned; not only had they been circumvented and lied to through the omission that their wishes were not being respected by not only the special education coordinator and the principle, but contrary to their request to their sons teacher to be informed about any changes or modifications to their child’s programming, that teacher had chosen not to engage them in an open and transparent communication stream. This led the parents to talking to the school division’s head office to get something done about the matter. The response was equally appalling; the vice-superintendent shrugged his shoulders and stated, “DIBELS is a compulsory assessment in our division, the use of it is the discretion of the principal”. The vice-superintendent then considered the matter closed, the parents did not.

In the Alberta School Act section 8 states:
8. School boards must:
a. ensure parents have the opportunity for participation in decisions that affect students’ education
b. ensure parents have information needed to make informed decisions
c. invite meaningful involvement of parents in planning, problem-solving and decision-making relating to students’ special education programming (p. 9)
School boards must:
• obtain parents’ informed written consent for specialized assessments or referral (1a, p. 6; 4c, p. 7)
• in cases when parents refuse consent, document and place in the student record the reasons for refusal and/or actions undertaken by the school board to obtain consent (1b, p. 6; 11f, p. 10) and/or resolve concerns (11f, p. 10).
• obtain parents’ informed written consent for specialized assessments or referral (1a, p. 6; 4c, p. 7)
• obtain parents’ informed written consent for specialized assessments or referral (1a, p. 6; 4c, p. 7)
“Informed consent” means that the individual:
• has been provided with all information relevant to the activity for which consent is sought
• understands and agrees, in writing, to the carrying out of the activity for which his or her consent is sought
• understands that the granting of consent is voluntary and may be withdrawn at any time (p. 4)
Principles for Fair Student Assessment Practices for Education in Canada (1993) includes a section on assessments produced external to the classroom. It states, in part:
• Users should select assessment methods that have been developed to be as fair as possible for students who have different backgrounds or special needs. (p. 14)
• The students being assessed and, where applicable, their parents/guardians should be provided with complete information presented in an understandable way. (p. 19)

In this particular case, the Alberta School Act as it is written was ignored. There was no attempt to have the parents change their minds, there was no option given that would have given the parents an opportunity to explain their position to the school board in order to have the principal and special education coordinator respect their position if enforced by a school board decision that sided with their concerns. The only action taken by the principal was an act of cowardice and inappropriate actions on his part and that of his staff.

It would seem that the principal and the teachers chose not only to disrespect the wishes of the child’s parents, but break the School Act. One would suppose that this would be of a concern that there was a lack of ethics and a criminal aspect to the actions of the school; however, the only efforts being made have been to intimidate the parents into dropping the matter entirely, or in the words of the principal, “the only people hurting your son’s educational experience are you [the parents]. We [the principal and teachers] are educational professionals who know what’s best.” When pressed further on why the parents were kept in the dark about the DIBELS testing the principal stated, “They could have simply asked for the test results and we would have given them”, cleansing the teachers and himself of any responsibility and to place the blame on the parents for not being more active in their child’s school activities. What the principal would not answer is why the parents would ask for assessment results when they had refused for their son to participate in and were under the impression that that decision was being respected.

The outcome is still being determined; the school continues to act with no regard to parental consent, leaving the parents in the dark on what it being done to their children while they wait for the process to go through the different levels of passing the buck. Is this an indication of the future of families? Has the educational system gorged itself to the point where even governments bend to their obese weight? There must be a concentrated effort on levelling the playing field for families when it comes to the direction of education; the time has long since passed where educational institutions from early childhood to post secondary are entitled to unquestionable compliance. Today’s parents can easily access information and make informed decisions for their children far faster than the bloated bureaucracy of the e-duh-cational system. It is time for schools to be given a reality check; they are a service to parents, they are not the parents lest those children grow up with the lack of respect for the sanctity of families for the institutional drudgery of unearned entitlement.