Faster Doesn’t Equal Smarter: Are Timed Reading Tests Making our Kids Dumber?
Timed reading tests such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test have been widely used in schools around the country since 2001. Because we are constantly trying to help our students compete with our international counterparts, many educators and administrators have come up with new methods over the years to try and make our kids “smarter” and more competitive. But are their efforts actually making our children dumber? According to the official website, the DIBELS test was specifically designed to assess the following five early literacy components:
- Phonological Awareness,
- Alphabetic Principle,
- Comprehension, and
- Fluency with Connected Text.
Basically, it is a 60-second test where the student reads a list of words or passages as fast as they can, whether they get the words right or wrong. If the child does not know a word, they are instructed to guess or skip the word. Surprising right? Why would we ask our children to read as fast as they can if they aren’t even getting the words right that they read? This is the question I ask myself each time a new student walks through my door that is struggling in school because they skip words, leave out letters or add letters to a word. How can we expect our students to properly decode, track words on a page and comprehend what they have read when they read so fast all that is left is guessing.
To give you a little background, the DIBELS test is now used in more than 40 states in the United States to monitor and screen the reading progress of K-3 students to find potential problems. It is required to be completed quarterly and some teachers utilize parents, aids and volunteers to administer the test more frequently, especially to those students who are struggling. These tests are often used weekly with pupils that are showing slowed progress or struggling with fluency. DIBELS is an easy to administer exam that does seem to help teachers make decisions to change reading direction with certain students. The trouble is, what this test was designed for and what it is now teaching our kids to do with their reading skills results in two completely different outcomes. And this isn’t the only standardized test out there with these results. According to an article in Education Week, the DIBELS assessment can quickly address if the student can read fast, but lacks focus on whether the student is on target for higher thinking skills such as vocabulary and comprehension. Ironic, since the test is supposed to accomplish these very skills according to the five early literacy components listed above.
With my experience as one of the tutors at our learning center, and as a parent who has volunteered in our local schools, it seems our students’ reading ability is getting worse. This could be one of the reasons why many children and some of our students are misdiagnosed with Dyslexia. What’s even more sad is when I see sixth-graders walk into our tutoring center who can barely read and will soon be teenagers in middle school. Can you imagine sending your child to middle school not being able to read? Believe me there are a lot more students out there than you may realize.
How it’s affecting our teachers
One of the most heart-wrenching parts of the standardized testing process is that our teachers are just as affected as the students. They not only have to work hard to ensure every student succeeds, in many cases they are required to do what they have to do to ensure their students pass these standardized tests even if they know the student can’t read. As long as the student makes his or her required time limit, the teacher can move the child up to the next grade level. Unfortunately, our teachers today don’t have as much say or support when it comes to standardized tests. Many teachers who are trying to make a difference and realize there is a problem are limited in what they can do and often recommend parents seek help outside the system because they can’t deviate from certain standards required in the classroom.
DIBELS and other standardized tests are setup to not only give teacher evaluation ratings, but it also provides direction on how students should be grouped and measured in the classroom. This could possibly push the teacher to focus more on lesson plans for assessment tests rather than lesson plans that focus on meaningful reading skills (for example, decoding, comprehension, vocabulary, etc.). Now you may know why your teachers are just as frustrated as you are.
Why timed tests may not be the answer
Many administrators, teachers and educational therapists see DIBELS testing and other standardized tests as only a fragment of reading skills. Some believe reading as a whole can be reduced to a few skills that can be assessed in one minute. Interestingly enough, there was a research critique released discussing some of the outcomes of the exam and how it used nonsense words in some of the testing methods. In our experience, there can be a huge difference between teaching students how to read real words that they see in every day life and sounding out or speed-reading nonsense or “fake” words.
Teaching a student to read nonsense words can create links in a child’s mind that promotes future ability to blend sounds to create real words. However, when you add the timed portion to nonsense words, it can create anxiety over a subject that should not include stress during this point in the child’s learning journey. What we have done is trained or “wired” our student’s brain to respond to the use of a mandatory stopwatch. Having been an administrator of these tests as a parent volunteer, I can attest that students are frequently distracted by the stopwatch and how much time they have left.
Because the DIBELS test measures progress by the number of words a student’s says correctly in 60 seconds, the student who practices self-monitoring by stopping themselves to sound out letter sounds, slows down for meaning or re-reads for understanding is often put into a lower category. When in fact, these students often have an advantage in future years with deeper comprehension. What are we conditioning when we instruct our children over and over to guess and skip words just to get a higher word score? Does the child interpret that he or she reads by scanning his or her reading material as swiftly as possible even if they miss words and have no clue what was just read?
The other issue with standardized tests measurements is the optional comprehension subtest that essentially asks the reader to retell the article. The administrator of the test must count each word the student says when the test is given. The main flaw with this idea is if the reader leaves out filler words, or is more sophisticated with their answers than other students, they are placed in a lower category.
Social risks from timed tests
Timed tests have just as much impact on a child’s social well-being as well as on their learning behavior. Parents often tell us that their child is embarrassed because the whole class knows why the same student leaves the classroom more often than the other students. In addition, more children are having anxiety over their weekly reading test if their score is not what it should have been the week prior. Should Kindergarteners and first-graders have anxiety over a test at such a young age?
When a 5-year-old that is still trying to adjust from being separated from their mother is overwhelmed when a stranger escorts them out of the classroom to perform a test with a stopwatch in hand, should we be surprised if the child shuts down after one line of words?
“When I first began teaching, it was rare that I received a call from parents inquiring about reading help for their Kindergartener,” said Alene Villaneda, CEO and founder of Integrated Learning Strategies. “Now, I consistently get calls one-to-two months after school starts from the parent describing that the teacher has told them their five or six-year-old is already behind on reading assessments.”
Why do children at this age have to go so fast when they are learning? Let’s give the child a chance to learn real skills needed for successful reading.
Many kids can handle this type of testing, but for the struggling reader this is bad news. Students learn at different rates and may need some extra tutoring and one-on-one time with a teacher or reading instructor. Let us avoid creating labels so early on with the eager learner. Let us as parents, teachers, administrators and community members look at other ways to assess progress in schools. Lastly, let us focus on substantial reading skills that teach the child to not only memorize words and focus on speed, but to read with meaning, learning and exploration.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs