Politics & Government

Legal fight over reading program leaves NC schools uncertain before classes start

Updated on Aug. 23, 2019

North Carolina elementary schools are in a state of confusion as the legal fight escalates over what program to use to test the reading skills of their youngest students.

This week, the state Department of Information Technology granted Amplify Education’s motion for a temporary stay against the new three-year, $8.3 million contract issued to use the Istation program. Amplify says the stay means Istation must halt implementation. But Istation says it’s continuing with training teachers as it seeks to get the stay dismissed.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced Thursday afternoon that the state Department of Public Instruction has filed a motion to “dissolve this improper stay.” Johnson accused DIT of ignoring due process and going against state law and the agency’s own rules by granting the stay after hearing arguments only from Amplify.

“DIT lawyers need to understand they are accountable to North Carolinians, not the CEO of Amplify,” Johnson said in his statement. “Given that DIT procurement specialists advised DPI throughout the procurement process, it is odd to begin with that the same department that approved the process is now in charge of reviewing that same process. “

Johnson also said that DPI is reviewing its “options to eliminate the uncertainty in our schools that DIT and this frivolous protest have recklessly created.”

Maggie Bizzell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Information Technology, did not directly respond Thursday to Johnson’s accusations. She said in an email that under state law the ongoing review is being handled by Eric Boyette, who is the state’s chief information officer and the agency’s secretary.

Bizzell said Wednesday that the agency would try to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

Jack Hoke, executive director of the N.C. School Superintendents Association, said that he’s advised school districts to continue training their teachers in the Istation program until they’re told to stop.

“It’s extremely confusing for everybody involved,” Hoke said in an interview Thursday morning. “School starts Monday for the majority of school districts.”

The state’s two largest school districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, are putting a hold on moving to Istation.

In Wake County, district leaders told principals on Wednesday to continue using Amplify’s mClass program to assess students while they wait for more information. Wake teachers are scheduled to receive Istation training in late September, depending on the outcome of the legal case, according to a district spokeswoman.

Brian Kingsley, chief academic officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said that starting Monday the district will halt any training and student assessments related to Istation implementation. He said the pause will last until the temporary stay is resolved.

“It is our District’s commitment to continue to review the possible impacts of changes for reading assessments and put the needs of our students first,” Kingsley said in a statement Friday. “Any decision about assessments in K-12 education should reflect our fundamental commitment as educators to students as the top priority.

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

In June, Johnson announced he was awarding the new Read To Achieve testing contract to Istation over Amplify.

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.

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.

Amplify then turned to DIT to throw out the contract and to put the new contract on hold while the dispute is heard.

“Amplify believes that DIT appropriately issued the stay because the Istation award is fundamentally flawed,” Larry Berger, Amplify’s CEO, said in a statement Thursday morning. “We welcome DIT’s review of this procurement.

“Amplify looks forward to a swift and appropriate resolution, so that the goals of Read to Achieve can be realized and teachers and students across the state are supported in helping every student become a confident reader.”

But Istation has been just as adamant that it feels the contract was fairly issued and will be upheld. Istation president Ossa Fisher said in a statement Wednesday that 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.

The contract has also been questioned by groups who are critical of Superintendent Johnson.

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.