Politics & Government

Wake, Durham and other school districts ask NC to delay computer-based reading test

Both North Carolina’s largest school systems and superintendents across the state want a delay in switching to a new computer-based program that will change how elementary schools test the reading skills of their youngest students.

The North Carolina Large District Consortium is citing concerns about being able to quickly train teachers in the Istation reading tool that State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced on June 7 would be used by all the state’s elementary schools. Similar concerns were voiced in a letter Thursday from the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association, which specifically asked for a one-year delay.

“An implementation delay will allow us sufficient time to train teachers so that they can effectively utilize the new tool at the beginning of the school year,” the superintendents in the consortium wrote in their letters to Johnson and the State Board of Education.

“Most of our districts have year-round schools which begin as early as July 9. We cannot possibly implement this new assessment tool in just a few short days.”

The consortium consists of the state’s 12 largest districts, including Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Durham Public Schools, Johnston County Schools and Union Public Schools. The districts represent nearly 50% of the state’s public school students.

Currently, students in kindergarten through third grade read aloud to teachers using the mClass program from Amplify Education Inc. Istation will print out reports for teachers based on the results of tests taken on the computer program.

The request is the latest chapter in a fight that has seen some teachers ask state leaders to delay the change and a legal protest being filed over how the contract was awarded.

Amid all the questions, the State Board of Education has called a meeting for Friday to discuss the Istation contract. Board members have said they approved the contract based on Johnson’s recommendation.

Amplify filed a protest Monday asking state officials to suspend or terminate Istation’s contract while its appeal is heard.

In a press release on Wednesday, Ossa Fisher, the president of Istation, accused Amplify of “filing a frivolous protest without any substantial basis or merit.”

“Their purpose is solely to cause unnecessary delay in the contract awarded to Istation,” Fisher said in the statement. “The false and misleading statements that Amplify is publicly distributing are intended to harass and cause harm to our company after we were awarded the contract — fair and square — based on our product offerings and proven track record working with millions of students across the country.”

Amplify defended its protest against Istation’s complaint.

“We stand behind our protest letter and look forward to meeting with DPI to discuss our concerns about the procurement,” Larry Berger, chief executive officer of Amplify, said in a statement Thursday. “Our concerns echo the outcry by parents, teachers and administrators from around the state.

“In social media, the press, and in conversations with district leaders, we keep hearing that teachers wish to continue using our assessment program and feel it is a better choice for North Carolina.”

Since the Read To Achieve program was started in 2013, teachers have used mClass to test K-3 students. It’s part of an effort to try to get children proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

But passing rates on the state’s end-of-grade reading test have dropped in third grade instead of improving since the start of Read To Achieve.

“After six years in North Carolina under Amplify, the data shows that North Carolina students are no better off than they were before Amplify,” Fisher said. “We urge state leaders to continue to move in the positive direction for students and deny Amplify’s frivolous and harmful request to suspend the contract and to deny them a protest hearing that has no merit and is not based on substantiating facts.”

In addition to questioning Istation’s program, Amplify in its protest questioned how the contract was awarded. Amplify cites reports that mClass was recommended by an evaluation committee formed by Johnson but that he chose Istation anyway.

Amplify cites Facebook posts from Amy Jablonski, who says that the committee found mClass to be better than Istation.

Jablonski led the evaluation committee before she quit her position at DPI. She’s also a candidate now for state superintendent.

The state Department of Public Instruction has denied that the committee recommended either product.

Istation is being paid $2.8 million a year in the new contract, or $8.3 million over three years. But Amplify says it offered to reduce its current contract amount of $6.3 million a year by 40 percent to $3.8 million.

Teachers across the state have taken to social media to urge people to question the change. Istation has asked teachers to give the new program a chance.

“Our schools rely on these kinds of diagnostic tools to help our teachers understand our youngest students’ reading abilities,” Durham Public Schools said in a post Thursday saying they’re requesting the delay in using Istation.

“Early literacy is vital to our students’ success. We are carefully reviewing whether Istation would adequately meet our students’ needs— and we are exploring our options and the associated costs if we determine that a different tool is needed.”

In a letter Thursday, Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore asked Johnson to request that the state board let the district use mClass for the 2019-20 school year. She also cited concerns about switching from mClass to Istation.

“Best practice suggests that assessments for young children should be administered in a one-on-one setting by the child’s teacher and in short segments over a period of several days or weeks,” Moore wrote. “An assessment that relies solely on technology, such as Istation, does not provide teachers with information that supports students’ early literacy skills and will negatively impact the most academically fragile.”

In his June 7 letter, Johnson apologized for the delay in announcing the new program but blamed it on “events outside of our control.”

The School Superintendents’ Association says it would be a challenge to change the program due to the late notice. The group says the implementation schedule wasn’t posted until June 18 — after many teachers began their summer break.

“The Executive Board of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association would like to ask that you request the General Assembly to delay the implementation of the new reading diagnostic tool for one year due to the short turnaround time in the teacher training schedule,”the group wrote in its letter to Johnson.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

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.