Comprehending DIBELS

K-12 Testing

By Gerald Coles


Seldom has one test done so little for so many while pretending to do so much. I’m referring to DIBELS, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, a speedy test of simple reading skills: letter naming, identifying and producing sounds in words (phonemic awareness), phonics, reading fluency, and “retell fluency.”


Administered throughout a school year, DIBELS is supposed to ascertain a student’s reading progress from kindergarten through sixth grade. If you’re wondering about comprehension, that’s in the subtest “retell fluency,” which follows “reading fluency.” After a student reads a story aloud for one minute, a teacher asks, “Tell me everything you just read,” and then silently counts the words produced within one minute, a number that translates into a “comprehension” score. Fast thinking is a must: a second brief pause that goes beyond five seconds ends the subtest.


What might have been an educational joke a few years ago has become, according to DIBELS promoters, “the most relied upon assessment for meeting Reading First requirements” in No Child Left Behind. In the 2003-2004 school year, nearly 5,000 schools employed DIBELS to test over one million students, a number that will be exceeded this year. Teachers use a handheld computer to help give the test and instantly deliver test results, “risk assessments,” and class summaries. Soon, teachers will be able to obtain lesson plans crafted to improve lagging DIBELS scores.


Besides its obviously paltry “comprehension” measure, the test’s value can be appraised by examining its chief assumption: that there is a causal connection between the DIBELS skills and later reading success. That claim is supposedly validated in the 2000 National Reading Panel Report, considered the gold standard by DIBELS promoters.


As I and others have concluded, following a close examination of the Report, none of its claims about the causal centrality of these skills holds up: After second grade, any benefit of an early mastery of these skills on reading comprehension disappears. Neither do the pre-packaged, skills-emphasis programs demonstrate any superiority in making proficient readers of poor or “at-risk” children, those supposedly benefiting most from a skills-heavy curriculum. As for “retell fluency,” the Report did not address the validity of this kind of measure and its use is not supported by independent evidence elsewhere.


But DIBELS marches on, aided in no small part by educators who combine profiting from DIBELS with providing Reading First grant consultation to schools and working in the Bush Administration’s apparatus, which sets standards for and oversees Reading First. Applicants for Reading First grants know using DIBELS enhances the likelihood of funding. School heads know DIBELS can also be useful in meeting NCLB testing mandates and avoiding its punishments: Just hammer away at skills, accept the intellectually rigid and vacuous form of learning that DIBELS promotes, and assume that this “scientific” approach to reading achievement will work. Unfortunately, the “retelling” of the DIBELS story a few years from now will seem beyond comprehension.


A Gerald Coles is an educational psychologist and the author of Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (Heinemann, 2003).