School Testing Makes My Daughter Feel Stupid

No Child Left Behind, while it may benefit some children, ignores my daughter's ADHD and learning disabilities — and is in fact leaving her far, far behind with its ill-conceived state tests.
Be Our Guest |
Amy Rottman head shot

Amy Rottmann, Ed.D., this week’s guest blogger, has two beautiful, creative children with her husband of 15 years. She earned her bachelor’s in English with a concentration in Secondary Education, her master’s in education in the Secondary English Education, and her doctorate in Educational Leadership: Curriculum, Instruction, & Supervision — all from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

I have just walked away from my child to take a deep breath and regain my patience. She is screaming as she lays her head on the table trying to complete her first-grade homework. Since my daughter has ADHD, learning disabilities, and a state test coming up, these meltdowns are common in our home. I come home from work, cook dinner, and prepare myself for the battle. Let me set the stage.

> The bell rings and papers are pulled out.
> Daughter sees the work, and starts yelling, “I can't do all that,” “I don't know what that says,” “I hate homework,” “I’m stupid.”
> Mom tears up when her daughter says, “I'm stupid.
> Daughter throws herself from the chair, screams on the floor, and cries.
> Mom says, “You can do this, easy-peeze,” and picks her daughter off the floor and places her in her seat.
> Daughter screams again, “I can't,” as she hurls her body to the ground again.
> Mom takes a deep breath and feels the fire grow inside of her because she hasn't gotten her daughter to write her name yet. She picks her daughter up off the floor again and puts her not as nicely in the chair again.
> Daughter screams, “You hurt me!” and focuses on her imaginary injury for five minutes.

Ugly, isn’t it? It is a common battle in my home, mostly ending in my leaving the room to calm myself down. I slap my tag team partner, Dad, to fight the rest of the battle. I bet many of you think that we need to work on our parenting skills. In some cases you are correct, but we have tried every tutorial skill and behavioral intervention I could research to motivate our daughter.

We tell her constantly that she is “super smart,” that we are impressed by the random facts she spouts as we drive down the road. For all the hard work we do at home to encourage, uplift, implement strategies for organization, and create ways to foster focus, it all shatters, like a sheet of glass, when my daughter with ADHD walks into school and is confronted with DIBELS.

DIBELS sounds like a disease, doesn’t it? It stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. It is one of North Carolina’s ways of testing our kids to make sure they meet the requirements for No Child Left Behind (NCLB). DIBELS is a computerized test, administered by a teacher to acquire a child’s knowledge in oral reading fluency, retell fluency, and word use fluency. Teachers hold a handheld device that records a student’s response to the content being assessed. Why would this test cause my daughter to feel like she is not smart, can’t read, doesn’t know how to write, and to hate school? It is a timed test that some adults would find stressful. DIBELS allots one minute to each section of the test. One minute? Give me a break. I can’t even pack a lunch in one minute, much less think about being tested on my knowledge. The oral reading fluency section requires kids to read a 215-word-long reading passage that is presented in a five-paragraph essay format. I don’t know about you, but any child, with or without ADHD, pulls back when she sees a reading passage like that. Where are the pictures? Could a school make reading any scarier to a first-grader? The child has to read it perfectly, and if she omits or mispronounces a word, she has three seconds to “self-correct” or it is counted as incorrect. If a child hesitates for more than three seconds, it is incorrect again.

The paragraph above is 131 words. Stop right now and read it fluently. However, while doing so, imagine that a child screams in the background and a dancing bear enters the room. Most people would stop reading to look at the bear. I would and so would my daughter, except that she doesn’t need to hear a crying child or see a dancing bear to be distracted. She just needs to hear a chair move, see a leaf on the ground, or have her hair fall near her mouth, to lose focus on the task at hand, her DIBELS test.

Distractions aside, she still has to sound out her words, and even if she can recall them by recognition, my daughter is a perfectionist and wants to sound them out first, as she was taught to do, to make sure she says them correctly. If that takes longer than three seconds, the test says she is incorrect. She continues to read, not realizing that the test is already indicating that she is below reading level because she took time to sound out a few words, got a bit distracted by a piece of paper on the floor, or put a “my” in front of the word “Mom” that was not supposed to be there.

She has now read a story that has no plot and that she is unsure of what it says because she was too focused on trying to say each word correctly. The whole time she was reading, she was also trying to figure out what that thing in the teacher's hand is. But all those things do not matter because now she must “retell” the story. My daughter does have a great memory, and she often retells me stories I read to her last week, but she has a problem retelling stories that she has read. I know this because she has told me. My daughter and I go to the public library at least once a month to check out a bag full of books, which I sit and read to her as soon as we get home because she is excited to see and hear about the adventures the characters go on. My daughter loves books, and she can tell me what I just read, but when I ask her to read just one page to me she says, “OK, but can you tell me what I read after, because I don't know what it says?”

She works so hard to sound out the words that she loses the meaning of those words. I tear up as she says she wants to understand the story, but she can’t. Her learning disability requires her to focus on the sounds of each word, and she can't understand the meaning of the sentence. So when I heard about the retell fluency section of DIBELS, I wanted to scream, “Are you kidding me? How can she pass this?”

After the retell section comes the word use fluency test, where she has a minute to correctly read as many words as she can. She is given a list of 18 words, and the teacher gives her two examples of how to use a word in a sentence. The child has five seconds to use it correctly in a sentence. After five seconds, she must move to the next word. I looked up the DIBELS word list for first grade, and I think it would be confusing for any kid.

DIBELS has affected my home life and my daughter’s self-confidence. I know that there are many benefits to conducting this test in schools. I am just not one of the lucky parents whose child excels at timed tests.

I hate knowing that when I get home from working all day that I must battle with my child to show her that learning can be fun. I should be relishing the few hours a day I have with her, not dreading it. After the homework battle is over and she is asleep, I look at her sweet face and wonder why she is being left behind in a school system that mandates that no child be left behind.


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