Politics & Government

Groups want investigation into how multi-million-dollar reading contract was awarded

Advocacy groups are calling for a state investigation into how a multi-million-dollar contract was awarded that will change how the reading skills of North Carolina’s youngest students will be tested.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson picked the computer-based Istation program for a three-year, $8.3 million contract to test K-3 students under the Read To Achieve program. But public records released so far show that Johnson overrode the recommendations from an evaluation committee that he had formed that said the state should continue to use the Amplify mClass program.

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.

“It is clear that there must be outside intervention to fix this flawed process,” said Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, at a news conference Friday held on Bicentennial Plaza across the street from the Legislative Building. “We see no reason why this hastily made decision cannot wait until a proper investigation is conducted before haphazardly implementing a system that does not appear to be in the best interests of North Carolina.”

Nazneen Ahmed, a spokeswoman for Stein, said that the request has been received and will be reviewed.

Johnson has said that Istation is the best diagnostic tool for the state to use. He’s also criticized the work of the evaluation committee and said there are reasons why Amplify was not picked that he can’t publicly disclose yet until the company’s protest of the contract is resolved.

Amplify met with the state Department of Public Instruction on Thursday as part of its protest. DPI has 10 days from the meeting to decide on the appeal.

“DPI and the Superintendent have followed and continue to follow all applicable laws, policies and rules related to this procurement process,” Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson, said Friday.

“The next step in this process will be the Superintendent’s response, which will be issued between now and July 28,” Wilson added.

‘Continue the protest’

Based on Thursday’s meeting, which was not open to the public, Amplify CEO Larry Berger said he didn’t hear anything to make him believe that his company doesn’t have a strong case. He said that if DPI goes against Amplify the company will appeal to the state Department of Information Technology.

“Districts want us to continue the protest,” Berger said in an interview Thursday. “I think that’s part of why there were originally superintendents who said, ‘Wait a second. Let’s delay this thing until we see what’s going on.’”

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 teachers have had students read aloud to them using mClass 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 on social media. Istation has said that teachers who are now being trained in the new program will come to love it.

Cease and desist letters

Istation has also sent cease and desist letters threatening legal action against some critics, including members of N.C. Families For School Testing Reform. The company has accused critics of making false statements about Istation, which those people have denied.

Johnson didn’t announce until June that the state would switch to Istation for the 2019-20 school year. The late notice caused superintendents around the state to ask for a one-year delay on moving to the new program.

Due to the concerns, Johnson announced a plan to delay using test data from the new program by six months while teachers are trained in using Istation.

DPI has blamed the late news on factors such as one of the committee members breaching “the confidentiality of the procurement process which jeopardized the legality of the procurement.” DPI would cite the breach to disband the committee and negotiate directly with Amplify and Istation before going with Istation.

Suzanne Miller, organizer of N.C. Families For School Testing Reform, said Friday that the six-month delay isn’t enough. She said Friday that a one-year delay will also give more time to conduct an inquiry into how the contract was awarded.

“We look forward to learning the full story about how a test that was in second place upon review ended up being awarded the contract in the first place and then was rushed into schools in an irresponsible and disrespectful manner that’s disruptive for districts, educators and students. and won’t yield the desired results.”

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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.