Local & State Voices

Why did NC’s superintendent ignore his expert panel on new reading tests?

NC schools getting new K-3 reading diagnostic tool

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has selected Istation to provide reading diagnostic tools for K-3 teachers and students beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.
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The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has selected Istation to provide reading diagnostic tools for K-3 teachers and students beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

Updated 6/28 with decision from the State Board of Education to delay official use of Istation data until January:

As the 2018-19 school year ended, North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced a decision that shocked public school parents and employees alike: he had signed a contract with Dallas-based e-learning company Istation. Beginning next school year, all diagnostic reading tests for students from kindergarten to third grade would be conducted with students working alone on computers rather than reading with their teachers.

Johnson’s announcement referenced “an unprecedented level of external stakeholder engagement and input” that had gone into the process of selecting Istation, and his spokeswoman referred to it as “the best choice.” Neither claim could be further from the truth.

Legislation passed during Johnson’s first year in office required the superintendent to issue a Request for Proposals to vendors of diagnostic reading assessments and “form and supervise an Evaluation Panel to review the proposals” and select a tool. In accordance with that law, a broad and robust evaluation team was created in fall 2018 to conduct the review.

After researching the four available products for months, the evaluation committee came to a consensus. According to multiple people who were involved in the process, the team recommended that North Carolina schools continue using mClass, the reading screener which has been in use since the Read to Achieve initiative was implemented in 2013.

What happened next is murky. DPI said the RFP process was canceled due to unspecified “actions that jeopardized the legality of the procurement.” The department entered into negotiations with the four vendors, and months later Johnson awarded the contract to Istation.

Apart from Johnson disregarding the input of dozens of experts, there are a number of reasons why the switch to Istation is bad for our children.

The interaction between teacher and student is essential in maintaining a high level of motivation in our students so we can get an accurate measure of their abilities. When children work alone on a computer, the task sometimes becomes tedious and the lack of teacher involvement can lead to children just clicking answers to get done. The resulting data is useless for planning purposes.

One-on-one interaction is also important for identifying reading difficulties early on so that appropriate interventions may begin. The computer-based Istation tool requires students to listen to sounds and match them with choices on the screen rather than having a child produce sounds and read words to a trained professional as they currently do with mClass. It will be far less effective in catching reading disorders such as dyslexia.

The legislation calls for a tool that will “demonstrate high rates of predictability as to student performance on state assessments.” While mClass use has regrettably not led to improvement in reading scores, research has found its measures to be highly predictive of End of Grade testing results. On the other hand, Istation correlated so poorly with tests in Colorado that Denver Public Schools recently had to reduce the impact of early literacy scores on school rating systems.

Superintendent Johnson and DPI claim the evaluation committee did not come to a consensus and recommend mClass. But Johnson also warned district superintendents in a recent email that those who participated in the Request for Proposals “are not to share any information about the process.”

Good government requires consensus and transparency. If the evaluation committee did indeed agree that mClass is the best available tool for North Carolina’s children, our superintendent should honor their recommendation. As for transparency, DPI compliance with public records requests as required by state law will shed crucial light on what appears to be a very flawed process.

Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy.