Education

State blocks use of controversial new reading contract for NC schools

Days before the start of the new school year, a motion has been granted to block the use of the controversial new Istation reading program in North Carolina’s public schools.

The state Department of Information Technology granted Amplify Education’s motion Monday for a temporary stay against the use of Istation while a dispute is heard over how the contract was awarded.

Amplify wants DIT to throw out the three-year, $8.3 million contract that State Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded to Istation in June to test the reading skills of K-3 students.

Wednesday, Istation appealed the order, according to a DIT spokeswoman. Istation president Ossa Fisher said in a statement Wednesday that the contract was “legally and appropriately awarded” and that she remains confident the contract will be upheld. She said the company has “not been asked to change course on the implementation process.”

“Istation will continue the work we started in North Carolina this summer training teachers and helping students develop critical grade level reading skills for a successful school year,” Fisher said.

But Larry Berger, Amplify’s CEO, said in a statement Tuesday night that the stay means “Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT.”

“We look forward to working with the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past,” Berger said.

The conflicting statements from Istation and Amplify come a week before the majority of elementary schools begin the new school year.

Johnson said in a statement Tuesday night that he is “disappointed” in the temporary stay,

“It sows unnecessary confusion for our educators just as the school year starts but am confident that the decision the State Board (of Education) and I made in support of a positive change will stand,” Johnson said.

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 students have read out loud to their teachers while the teachers use Amplify’s mClass program to assess their skills. Under Istation, students will be tested on a computer program, with the results being provided to teachers.

The decision to switch has been controversial, with teachers across the state questioning the change. Istation has said that teachers will eventually like the new program.

Fisher said the company already is training teachers and administrators and have “assessed over 7,000 North Carolina students to-date and registered more than 300,000 students for Istation’s programs — with more joining every day.”

“Our track record working with more than 4 million students across the country has created successful outcomes for early education readers by freeing up valuable classroom instruction time and customizing learning tools for individual students,” Fisher said.

Due to concerns raised about the late notice of the new contract, the state agreed not to use the test data from Istation for six months while teachers and students become used to the new program. Superintendents across the state had asked for as much as a 1-year delay.

Public records show Johnson went against the recommendations from an evaluation committee, which he had formed, that said the state should continue to use mClass.

In his July decision rejecting Amplify’s appeal, Johnson accused the evaluation committee of “employing biased procedures” that benefited Amplify and having made false statements about Istation. He also said that some committee members violated the confidentiality of the procurement process by discussing it with outsiders.

Tuesday, Johnson said, “Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for teachers, students, and parents.

“There were problems with the procurement process, but the final decision was fair, objective, and followed all rules, policies, and laws. This has been clearly detailed in a public letter.“

He referred to a July 26, letter denying Amplify’s protest that outlined the process. Amplify turned to DIT after Johnson’s response.

Some still question how the contract was awarded. Several Senate Democrats unsuccessfully asked Senate leader Phil Berger to launch an investigation into how the contract was awarded.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators are asking State Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood and state lawmakers to review the contract.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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