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)
Definitions
“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.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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13 Comments on “The Problem with DIBELS”

  1. In my experience here in the states, both as a parent and a mental health professional who sits in on special education teams, the biggest failure in this area seems to be with the Administrators such as Principals. Their Lasse fare treatment of educational law and it’s updates causes a lot of problems along with their attempted cover-ups and back peddling. Not to mention out and out lying. Most Adminstrators have been in the field for a long time and are sitting behind a desk waiting for a bigger retirement check. While conversely special ed teachers and nowadays teachers in general are relatively young, untested and afraid of losing their jobs. They do what they are told to avoid this. The best answer is for parents to have advocates. We have programs which I’m sure are on the chopping block for parent advocacy but most parents don’t know this until it’s too late. One family I worked with even brought in a lawyer for one meeting. Most can’t afford that but I can tell you that that kid got THE MOST help available for his situation after that meeting and the Principal was moved,(and later fired for fishy use of school funding) If we are going to utilize public systems we have to educate ourselves along with our kids on what their rights are. Read the student rights booklets. They mostly look the same year after year but some small things usually change and in California at least we are required to sign off on them, so we are in effect saying yes I have all the info.
    Be involved, Kids are not accessories or a rounding out of our life’s dreams. They are people.
    And I say again, standardized testing works for no body and is a stress to the best performers.. It should be tossed and kids should be tested when a need is clearly identified with a team in place to discuss the child’s BEST interest.

  2. I’d say, be careful on anything you sign. They are contractual agreements which effectively say you will abide by the policy without question. In instances where you find small print that might cause future conflicts, you should list your reservations and sign it, “all rights reserved without prejudice”. This leaves you unencumbered by the paper document that wavered your rights to your own sound judgment.

    Our children are our own best interests. We will invest more money into the costs of their upbringing than any material asset we own. We will impart to them our hereditary customs, our belief systems, even our dreams of the future. They are a full time job. If we surrender our rights to determine the best educational course for our children, we are surrendering a large portion of our responsible parenthood.

    As Tony so aptly pointed out, standardized tests don’t fit across the board. They vary in accordance to environment, family interactive time, general pursuits or interests and special learning abilities. There is even a classification of people we fondly call “late bloomers”; children who demonstrate no special learning skills at the onset of their early education, but that suddenly develop into astonishing academic awareness during or shortly after puberty.

    Minds are so many things; building their synapse of coordinated informational understanding through diamond shaped passage ways of neuron connections. Some grow rapidly through building block association, some leap and bound, generating more activity in some areas than others, some activate more memory components, displaying amazing clarity of visual awareness, without any true development of the mind chart that houses mathematics or arts; the two big thinking muscles of the brain. Maybe we should submit all aspiring teachers to a brain scan to determine if they are using the rote of memory or if they actually understand the mathematical/artistic base of their thinking.

  3. The only things I’ve seen my kids respond to had a screen in front of it, a keyboard or a set of controls. Have you noticed the toys offered for infants? Buttons to push, lights to flash, sounds to make; miniature computers set up for babies. You want to talk about spatial skills? Try looking for a set of wooden blocks, painted with the ABC’s on the sides in a Walmart’s or Fred Myer’s store. How many kids can do simple multiplication without their calculators? The power suddenly goes out in the grocery store. The clerk is left with the task of counting back your money by hand. Oh the agony of the dilemma in figuring out that the change from a thirty-seven and sixty three cent purchase paid with two twenty dollar bills is two dollars and thirty-seven cents.

    I’m not against educational toys that increase technological skills, but they don’t fill the requisites for learning the basics, and that includes adequate responses without a computer monitor. We should forget all this readiness mumble jumble and return to teaching readiness. Give kids back their alphabet blocks, their colored triangles, circles and squares, their crayola crayons. Give them back their mud pie making play. Whatever they are to become will be apparent soon enough, even if it’s a cook instead of a rocket scientist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter wants the computer to play World of War Craft.

  4. Apologize for my bad english, I deliberate on its a precarious hell of your writing. Well I be suffering with faced alot of difficulties in this form but your article discretion definately help me in future. Thank You

  5. Just to be clear, is the issue here the fact that the student was a special education student?

    Because the fact of the matter is that DIBELS is not necessarily “specialized assessment”, it is often a standard assessment given to every child in a class. As such, this would make it no different than any other ongoing formative (or even summative) assessment administered by a teacher in class — including homework assignments, worksheets, and quizzes. Is a teacher required to write home to inform the parent of every single upcoming worksheet or quiz and receive parental consent for those, as well? That notion is absurd.

    Guess what? I have generalized anxiety disorder. This doesn’t mean I get to be exempt from job performance observations or evaluations, whether they stress me out or not. When are these parents who are sheltering their children going to learn that their kids need to learn how to function in the real world at some point?

    If parents are entitled to withhold their children from being assessed at school, then this defeats the entire notion of grades, assessment, and evaluation of ability. (Heck, why even evaluate people for promotions or raises at their jobs?) If every parent were to try to micromanage their childrens’ classroom activities this way (including assessments), schools would cease to function. If parents want to control every aspect of a child’s learning, there is really only one way to do that: home-schooling.

    Nowhere in this Alberta school act does it say parents get to make the final decisions. It says “ensure parents have the opportunity for participation in decisions that affect students’ education” — OPPORTUNITY for PARTICIPATION in decisions. This could be as simple as an open forum for addressing concerns via principal or board meetings. Nowhere does it say that the school has to OBEY the parent concerns. “Participation” in a decision does not mean the decision has to be (a) unanimous, or (b) approved by the parent.

  6. The student was classified as having a severe speech issues as well as an anxiety disorder that leads to bouts of serious depression. You are correct, the school board has defended its ability to use this assessment on students because it adopted it as a school policy, however, it should be noted it is not mandated by the Alberta government for it to be used. It should also be pointed out that, as the school superintendent pointed out rather forcefully, that it is up to the discretion of the principal whether or not the assessment is used. If a child cannot pronounce a word properly, according to DIBELS, it is a fail. DIBELS is an oral assessment to test reading competency – since when does being able to pronounce a word properly show that a person understands? DIBELS is a subjective assessment and that is where its biggest failure is.

    Sorry that you have a general anxiety disorder, but tell me, if you have don’t get a good job performance review, do you consider hurting yourself? The student in question was in grade two, where the child’s agenda outlines every spelling, social, language, etc, exam and homework, so to retort to your allegation of absurdity, then the school was already being quite absurd, now weren’t they? At this age there is just the emergence of problem solving skills, but they need to be developed further to become adequate coping skills. How are parents supposed to foster these skills if their child is told by their teacher, “just don’t tell your mom and dad what we did today, okay”? Does that even sound like ethical or professionalism? Here is another educational absurdity to ponder – in this particular school; there is no failing a grade. No matter how poorly a child grasps a basic concept, they are moved onto the next grade regardless. Several parents were worried at their child’s lack of ability to grasp the concepts, so they requested that their child be left in the grade in hopes that perhaps another year going over these concepts would perhaps rote themselves into the child’s learning pattern. The school said “no” – it was a matter of a child’s self esteem if they were to be left behind while their classmates moved on. This is short term thinking; what does the greater damage, failing continuously on the more complicated concepts since the basic ones were not fully understood, each year getting more and more frustrated, or simply keep the child where they can perhaps success?

    Let us delve further into whether or not parents should, at times micromanage their children in the school. There are times where there should be parental involvement in exactly what is done with their child in a school setting. For example, a child is left handed, yet despite parents telling the teacher that, she continually uses right handed techniques and cannot fathom why the child’s writing skill isn’t improving. Should not a parent be more assertive? Or do they simply watch their child go through the grades with poor penmanship that will get marks taken off in later grades? Another example, a grade one teacher tells her class that “anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is wrong” – and the child has relatives of Islamic faith? Should not the parents intervene and let the teacher know that they expect their child to learn tolerance of different beliefs? Or do they sit back and watch as their child tells the relatives that they are wrong for believing what they do? Here’s an example, a child has an aide because he has special needs and the parents have told the teacher and the aide that he will run if not watched. The school decides that the best way to handle this is to put up a sign with a picture of the school door with an “X” through it – it does not inform the parents nor do they inform the parents of the success or failure of this though the parents are told by other parents that they prevented that child from leaving the school because the aide was no where in sight? It’s a security issue, isn’t it? If the child runs out on the road and gets struck, where does that leave the parents?

    To your last point – opportunity. There was no opportunity – the school did not supply the parents with any information that they were using DIBELS after the parents objected. There was no opportunity for the parents to go to the school board. The school act does provide avenues to parents when they have disputes with the school, however, if parents are left in the dark, those avenues are closed, aren’t they? The issue comes down to what are parental rights? Are they superseded by a school principal? How are parents to help their child if they aren’t aware of where the depression is originating from because the school does not provide information. The educational system is not about the individual, it is about putting things in nice little boxes that says “A” or “B”; parents have the ability to see the uniqueness of their child, if they wish to, and that knowledge should be used to make the education of the child maximum. It is not about controlling a child’s education; it is about inserting common sense where there is a lack of it in order to best facilitate that child’s learning later on.

  7. As a special needs teacher who uses DIBELS this topic caught my attention. Two big things jump out:

    1) Tt seems that the special needs teacher was doing a minimalist job, only using one form of activity or assesment (at least this is the way it reads)

    2) The teacher could have substituted something else for DIBELS: 6 min solution, ReadWell, NEXT, etc…too bad most of them are very very close to the same to each other. Why? Research has shown that timed testing fluency creates dramatic improvement. Teachers are often willing to agree with the research than agree with parents, after all, it is their job to show improvement in student performance.

  8. James T, you brought up two good points, though I am unsure whether you can classify it as minimalistic, but more ignorance of the individual. There is an educational myth that every child will reach a certain benchmark at a certain age, however, even in family units, not all children ‘mature’ in the same areas as their siblings do.

    The second point you made was teachers tend to agree with parent orientated research – I would like to live in your area because around Alberta, and I suspect median percentage of the other Canadian and American school districts the education system is driven by ‘educational professionals’ which deem it inappropriate to explain or attempt to bring parents/guardians in on their program designs.

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