The Time I DIBELed My Child

I’ve learned a few things about “standardized” tests and students on the autism spectrum. It started with the time that I was practicing using DIBELS on Liam.


He cruised through all of the activities at his level, until we came to the retell. I asked him to retell what he had read and he shut down. “I don’t know,” was all I could get out of him.

What did he mean? He had just read the passage nearly perfect. I wasn’t asking him difficult questions. I just asked him to tell me about what he had read. The thing is, I didn’t “tell” him that. Rather, I asked him to retell the story.

I’ve come to realize that what he thought I was asking was, retell me every word from what you just read. My response would have been, “I don’t know,” in the face of trying to recall every aspect of a cold read.

Surprised, I re-approached: can you tell me three things about what you just read? “Sure, Mom.” He went on to tell me five things.

Then, he caught sight of my marking how many words he was saying. Being motivated by numbers, on the second retelling, he said more. By the third story, he was trying to see if he had beaten his previous two times.

What I realized, and then re-realized later with the help of Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s book, Assessment in Perspective (2013), is that I hadn’t shared with Liam what I wanted him to do. I was vague with my directions, so as to not give away too much, to avoid getting a false (positive) result on the assessment.

However, when a literal brain comes up against an unclear task, instead of problem-solving its way through the task, it can become overwhelmed with all of the possible options, and shut down.

This is what Liam did. At first. Then, I quantified what I expected: tell me three things. He exceeded my expectation. I revealed, I’m going to be measuring your response by counting the number of words you say. He stretched what he said to meet and beat his output each time.

I will write later this year about other assessments I have given to students on the autism spectrum. The one theme that has emerged is: be transparent and clear in expectations. Let the student know why you are testing, how you are testing, and what the goal of the session is.

Isn’t this basic information that we should give to all of our students?

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