DIBELS Testing Reflections

This week was DIBELS sweeps. This ought to be an easy task, but it also leads to DIBELS testing reflections: Musing over all the lessons of the year, and all the worries about testing and the future.

First of all, there’s the tension about the scores. Before testing starts, sometimes teachers are on edge. They know what their kids are capable of, but they also know that sometimes kids have an off day. They also know that asking for a kid to be retested is not completely fair.

Teacher Tensions Rise at Testing Time

There’s the aspect of being the bearer of bad news. Explaining to kids who are still on intensive intervention that, their reading difficulties have not cleared up and so next year, they’ll still be on intensive intervention, is not fun.

Some kids have speech problems or can’t focus or get nervous and really should have a familiar tester, not someone who they don’t know. Then, the kid will not test quite what was hoped. And there’s this “oh no, it went bad” sort of vibe.

And then there’s the students’ responses. Their knowledge of how important this test is, since it often shines a light on the kid’s future academic trajectory, is not always developed. Sometimes the students don’t care what their score is. Others students are fixated on beating their previous numbers. To some degree this depends on who’s teaching them. But the students’ personality plays out in this as well.

Students May Worry Too

The “best practices” we elementary teachers have been taught state that kids should be taught to monitor their own progress. They should be concerned about their scores, even in kindergarten. It’s even one of the objectives for teacher effectiveness: do the kids know what they’re learning, how they’re doing, and can they monitor their own progress?

This being the case, it’s hard to give the kids the bad news.

Some kids have made huge gains and I rejoice, although I immediately start to worry that their reading strength could be lost, with all kinds of different reasons, just around the corner. Raising and teaching kids is never a sure thing.

Giving the Same Test Over and Over And Over

As I listen to kids doing then nonsense word test, a phonics screener which consists of random consonant-vowel-consonant trios, and which is quite reliable for predicting developmental reading difficulties, I notice that many of them are lighting fast. These kids have often been drilled with phonics cards. The results is a bit like an Olympic weight lifter asking to do some 25 pound shoulder curls. It’s so easy, it hardly seems like a test. But I feel confident that facility with sounds will continue to make their lives easier for years to come.

Next are the reading passages. Kid after kid reads the same three passages, a story about two brothers who decide to raise money by making a cocoa stand, a story about the parts of trees, a story about a boy in Africa sailing on a boat to the fish market, I recognize patterns as they struggle with the same words. The kids don’t pronounce “island” correctly; the silent “s” is irregular. Again and again, they have the fish going into the boat not onto the boat. This is just being sloppy, they are visualizing things going into the car they ride in and transporting the phrase into the instead of sounding it out. This is not a big problem.

Word Guessers

But an occasional student is a word guesser. This makes things go quite badly, because I either have to let the student think the wrong word is right, silently marking it down, or I have to correct the student, which breaks up their train of thought and may lose words of fluency. And then they guess another word wrong. The whole house of reading a passage can burn down quickly this way.

At the end of the story, every student has to retell. This is practice for next year. The retell isn’t scored. But the students have varying results. Some say one word at a time … Ken, boat, fish, sail. Or they may make up something: “You have to water trees to make them grow” that is not in the passage. They may just stare at you and say “we didn’t do that before” when asked to retell what they read.

My Own Group, the Bubble Kids

Test after test stacks up. I test my own group of 18 students. As a group, their scores were going on a downward tier trajectory when I came in in December. They are what’s called “bubble kids” which means they are in the “bubble” of being close to, but not at, grade level reading. These are kids who could be on level but without solid instruction they fall behind. It is an important role to teach these kids. Administration believes, perhaps with statistical justification, that they disproportionately make or break the school’s aggregate test score success.

My students have done well. One student is on “blue,” which means he’s exceeded expectations for the grade level. Six others are on green, on level and ready for second grade. Five are on yellow and are just a little behind. But six are still on red. I am happy that, as a group, they are higher than they were. There are several, perhaps a half dozen, who I don’t think will have significant reading difficulties in the future. They should be solid from here on out.

And Always, Some Still Need Intensive Instruction

But some of the students will still need intensive instruction in second grade. I worry about them. I am unlikely to be allowed to spend much time with them. Second grade is not a big focus for my position; I spend most of my days in kinder and first. So I worry about my bubble kids.

But then I draw a deep breath and go on. I know very well that in truth, it doesn’t matter who you’re teaching, high, low, bubble, kinder, high school — maybe more in high school! — you worry about where your students are going next. Knowing how many choices and challenges face them. You know that they’ll probably do all right, over all. But in there with the joy of the blessed summer vacation expectation, for every good teacher there is always this worry — will they be all right? Will they remember me and our class?

But most of all, will they be all right?

And only time will tell.

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