The DIBELS Divide (LITERACY COACH CONFIDENTIAL)
Literacy Coach Confidential is Choice Literacy's forum for answering the toughest questions literacy coaches and teachers face as they work together. Our contributors respond to the questions anonymously, which enables them to share honestly their own experiences in schools as they have grappled with similar issues.
This week's question is from a first-grade teacher:
We have a new curriculum coordinator who requires the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) as our primary assessment tool. I am an experienced teacher, confident about the assessments I use, and I don't find the information I receive from DIBELS particularly helpful. What do you suggest our first-grade teaching team might do to help the coordinator consider using more flexible and varied assessment tools?
While this question is specifically about one assessment tool, the larger issue is "my way or the highway" conflicts in schools between school leaders and teachers. In responding to the question, our panel emphasized communication, openness, and flexibility on both sides. So often these conflicts are about turf and miscommunication. Here is our best advice for tackling the problem.
The first response is from a former curriculum coordinator who returned to work as a classroom teacher. She feels the conflict isn't worth a major battle with a colleague:
I would give the assessment if it is mandated and use it as a small part of my planning. If you can find a way to show how the assessments that you do use work together to give you a profile of the child, that might be a good first step for conversations with the curriculum coordinator--helping to show that no one assessment does it all.
A literacy coach also sees the issue as a terrific opportunity to start a dialogue:
DIBELS provides one kind of information, so sharing with the curriculum coordinator what other type of data is needed to make instructional decisions would be useful. Simply asking the question, "How do you see us using the DIBELS data in our instructional decisions?" might be a great conversation starter.
For another literacy coach, collaboration at grade-level team meetings is key:
I might invite the curriculum coordinator to participate in a team meeting in which all of the grade level assessments are reviewed and the purpose of the tools are also identified. As a team you can identify the strengths and needs within the assessment system. If DIBELS is part of the assessment system, the team might identify the components of the assessment and what it does and doesn't address. My guess is that the curriculum coordinator wants a well-balanced assessment system that is going to support student learning.
This response is from two former curriculum coordinators who work with districts to implement core assessments and shared expectations. They emphasize that you want to avoid the "who's right/who's wrong" trap:
When we think about how to share our ideas around assessments with someone who may have a different opinion, we start by just making a list of what assessment data we need on our students. The list might include ideas such as matching books to readers, identifying students at risk or understanding students' phonetic needs. Then we begin to put the actual assessments next to this list of skills so we can see what is missing. For example: The DIBELS assessment does identify kids at risk in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics and processing, but it does not help teachers match books to readers.
When teachers make a chart of what they want to assess and what assessment tools they currently are using, then the group can think about additional assessments that are needed. The teachers may also want to learn more about why the curriculum coordinator finds it helpful to use DIBELS to help understand learners. In general, we agree that a variety of assessments are needed -- it is best not to make a judgment based on one data point.
In our work we have found that when you want to convince someone to change their mind about a particular issue, it is important to first fully understand the thinking behind why someone is asking you to do something. Once you hear their answer, you may better understand their point of view and then know how to build your ideas with their ideas. You are both working toward the same end goal -- even if you feel you are right, the best way to succeed is through collaboration.
Finally, a literacy coaching coordinator writes that it always comes down to goals when evaluating assessments:
I would create a list of outcomes for first grade. Chances are excellent that DIBELS will not be a good assessment for measuring children's progress towards those outcomes. Have samples of assessment that you prefer, and show how they inform your practice.