Father Knows Best about the DIBELS and the GRADE

Steven Singer weighs in on teaching, learning, and the trying process of education reform at his blog, GADFLYONTHEWALL (capitalization and jumbling together, his), which sports the tagline “To sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”  Be forewarned.


A nationally certified public school teacher, Singer is also the father of a daughter whom he calls “kindergarten tot,” whose adventures, along with his own, he’s been chronicling. Last month, at the L.A. Progressive, he gave a blow-by-blow account of the first parent-teacher night noting his daughter’s great affection for her teacher, how “enlightening and bizarre” it was for him to be in the parent’s seat, and the radical changes since his own kindergarten days.  She has homework almost every night, and a full day of school.  His mother would walk him home for lunch—the prelude to an afternoon of play.

Recently, in a post at his blog, Singer described “One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl from Toxic Testing.”  He’s an activist, and he’s comfortable railing against the corporatization and standardization of public education.  But then the political got personal.

He discovered his daughter would be getting familiar with the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the Group Reading and Assessment Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE). The former is defined on the website of the authors, as “a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade.” One-minute “fluency measures,” they’re designed to flag early reading problems.  The latter, a product of Pearson, the Goliath of market-based education, is described as a full-battery paper/pencil test of 50 to 90 minutes that everyone from preschoolers to adults can enjoy.

But as Singer thought about calling the principal of his daughter’s school to talk about excusing her from the tests, he was nervous.  Would his actions get his little girl in trouble?  Ultimately, he couldn’t suppress his strong belief that standardized testing is destroying public education, and demanding that kids “perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach.” He made the call.

The outcome was a meeting with the kindergarten teacher, a school counselor, the principal, and others.  Following are some edited excerpts from the script of the meeting, which Singer began by praising his daughter’s education at the school.  You should check out his original account, which eloquently captures the drama and nuance.

As you know, I teach at the secondary level and proctor the GRADE test to my own students. I’m sure the version given to elementary children is somewhat different, but I know first-hand how flawed this assessment is. It doesn’t assess academic learning. It has no research behind it to prove its effectiveness and it’s a huge waste of time where kids could be learning.

As to the DIBELS, I had to really do some research. As something that’s only given at the elementary level, it’s not something I knew much about. However, after reading numerous scholarly articles on the subject, I decided it wasn’t good for my daughter either.

When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.

Singer was surprised to see the principal nodding in agreement—he even mentioned a Keystone to Opportunity Grant, which stipulated use of the GRADE.  When the grant ran out, the district would likely stop administering the test, the principal confided.

But here’s the piece de resistance.  The principal finally put the kindergarten teacher in the spotlight.  Does the DIBELS provide you with useful information?” he asked. Singer’s description of that moment says it all:

The look on her face was priceless. It was like someone had finally asked her a question she had been waiting years to answer.

No, she said. I don’t need the DIBELS to know if my kids can read.


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3 comments to Father Knows Best about the DIBELS and the GRADE

  • Ellen Cogan

    The last line says it best. The teacher doesn’t need a test to tell her if her kids can read. Period. But a 1 minute test that is a total waste of the teacher’s time and the children’s time is rather harmless compared to the “latter” test.

    The larger question here is the liability of those seeking funds at the expense of the children the funds are supposed to benefit.

    Just look at the words describing the Pearson GRADE “a full-battery paper/pencil test of 50 to 90 minutes that everyone from preschoolers to adults can enjoy.”

    The vast majority of preschoolers and kindergarteners CANNOT sit for 50 to 90 minutes and certainly cannot reasonable hold a pencil for that long. By their own definition, the test is developmentally inappropriate for children below grade 3, when finger muscles are usually developed well enough to use a pencil for 20 minutes or so without undue fatigue or distress.

    Who at that Keystone to Opportunity grant decided that a developmentally inappropriate test should be tied to the grant money? And who at the application level for the money bothered to look at the price the children would pay for that money? Children’s discomfort and worse are often totally ignored in the process of giving and getting grant funds. This is not the first nor the only example of the “needs” of grantors to see if they are getting their money’s worth take precedence over the needs of the children, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the grant money in the first place.

    Would that someone applying for funding and seeing the reporting requirements just said “No. We can give you other, more appropriate measures of success.”

  • I’m a teacher who represents the dissenting opinion. In Mr Singer’s post, there is a lack of clarification about these assessments. We should take caution when lumping standardized tests and high-stakes tests together. Teachers need objective assessments; it is unwise to not include it as part the larger picture of what a child knows and is able to do. Mr. Singer chose to not post my respectful dissent in his blog post.

    • I’m surprised and disturbed to hear that Singer chose not not to post your respectful dissent. We need to have all views aired in this conversation. Do you teach young children? And if so, what assessments do you find useful? I would argue, as I did in a recent op-ed in the Albany Times Union, that objectivity is elusive, complicated by young children’s variable development. Information about children is critical, but the strategies we use to get it in a a policy context defined by high-stakes testing are detrimental to children’s well-being.

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