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Education Journal Features Research by Dr. Debora Scheffel
Reading improvement highlights research on third-grade literacy predictors

Testing is now a standard within our elementary school systems. But, are we testing the right skills?

Annually, thousands of third-grade students complete the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills Reading (DIBELS) test to measure their early literacy skills. This standardized test is used to identify underachievers in order to intervene.

But Dr. Debora Scheffel, along with Drs. Dianne Lefly from the Colorado Department of Education and Dr. Janet Houser of Regis University, questioned whether DIBELS is applicable to English Language Learners – a growing population in today’s classrooms. Their findings were published in the Fall 2012 edition of Reading Improvements journal.

“DIBELS measures reading achievement based on a student’s ability to decode language and the speed at which they do so,” explains Scheffel, who serves University of the Rockies as its dean of Research. “The concern is that DIBELS does not examine comprehension, which is the undisputed goal of reading.”

By ignoring comprehension, the researchers feared that DIBELS would fail to identify at-risk or underachieving children who are English Language Learners (ELL).

“These students may be very quick to decode English, with little comprehension. These students would not be identified by DIBELS as needing intervention or additional support,” says Scheffel. 

To examine this question, Scheffel’s team examined test data from 2,649 elementary school students, of which 30% were identified as ELL. These students were assessed at the conclusion of the 2006 school year, and had received reading interventions for two or more years previous.

The researchers compared the cohort’s performance on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). The CSAP was selected because, at the third-grade level, it measures only reading comprehension.

DIBELS data was retrieved three times each year during the academic years ending in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and students’ scores were matched to the DIBELS measurement system.

The team compared performances between ELL and non-ELL students in order to determine a “cut-off’ score that would predict an appropriate intervention point.

Findings of this study suggest that DIBELS subtests are better at predicting success than failure. That pattern was similar for both ELL and non-ELL students. In general, DIBELS is better at predicting children who are low-risk than those who are at-risk.


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