Educators concerned dyslexia could ‘fall through the cracks’ with new literacy assessment contract

State education officials’ decision to award a multi-million dollar contract to a computer-based literacy assessment program for young readers is drawing scrutiny from educators who question the program’s ability to help screen for dyslexia.

In June, State Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded the three-year, $8.3 million contract to Istation, a Texas-based company whose product has students read to a computer. The choice to pass over the current mClass program, has spurred pushback from teachers across the state. Dyslexia advocates say the company has failed to provide satisfactory answers on how it would adequately test students on indicators that would help teachers identify the learning disability.

“The big concern is that kids would fall through the cracks,” said Chelsea Bartel, a school psychologist in the Triangle area. “It happens now too, but we’re moving from a screening tool that is pretty good to one that’s a lot more general. It’s kind of like we’re moving backwards.”

A 2017 state law mandates “necessary and appropriate screenings” for dyslexia, and the state’s request for proposals asked vendors to describe how their platform can accurately quantify risk indicators. Critics of Istation have pointed to differences in the level of detail in the companies’ responses.

“I’m disappointed that a scientifically proven, evidence-based data piece was not selected,” Kris Cox, the state president of the International Dyslexia Association, said. “mClass was able to list out every subtest and how it meets [the law], but Istation basically said nothing other than it meets the criteria.”

The state’s contract award recommendation listed Istation’s lack of a dedicated dyslexia component as one of the program’s weaknesses — it noted that mClass offers one — but went on to say that the company “stated that their assessment can be used to screen for dyslexia.”

Ossa Fisher, the president of Istation, said that the program offers a number of subtests that measure data which can help teachers identify students who might be dyslexic. Each state that uses Istation decides which subtests to use, depending on individual legislation, she said.

“Dyslexia is a complicated diagnosis,” Fisher said. “While we absolutely meet the screening requirements, we also hope Istation is one of many pieces of information.”

Tara Galloway, state K-3 literacy director, told the state Board of Education at its meeting Thursday that the dyslexia benchmarks would require additional testing sessions on top of the three benchmark assessments conducted at the beginning, middle and end of the school year. The proposed dyslexia screening is based on Arkansas’s implementation of Istation, where a state law also requires screenings for the learning disability.

Critics of Istation have said there is a lack of research on its efficacy at tracking and indicating risk factors for dyslexia. Bartel said that Thursday’s meeting did little to address those concerns.

“It’s reassuring to hear Istation is going to work with us,” she said. “But if we’re just doing what Arkansas did, that’s great if we have evidence that it works. There was no discussion of that.”

While mClass requires students to read to teachers, Istation has students match words to sounds on the screen and read into a recording. Bartel said that for younger students, the lack of supervision can mean getting stuck on one word, exhausting the time limit on the question and providing inaccurate data. A teacher, she said, can recognize when to prompt a young reader along.

Teachers have also raised concerns about students clicking through the questions to get to the end. Matching words to sounds, Bartel said, is a lower level skill than sounding the words out. The possibility of less accurate data might mean more students with dyslexia going unidentified, she said.

“It’s like the difference between a multiple choice test and a short answer test,” she said. “One requires a higher level of mastery, and one you can click on anything and be right 25 percent of the time.”

Fisher said that Istation is not meant to replace teachers, but would free up time for individualized instruction since it would allow the assessment to be administered to the entire class at once.

Teachers across the state took to social media to urge people to contact lawmakers and the board to block the change. Their complaints, in addition to issues with dyslexia screening, include the late announcement in June that will force a scramble to learn the program over the summer.

Superintendents in dozens of districts asked for a one-year delay in the Istation implementation, but the state instead approved a 6-month period where results from progress assessments will not count toward evaluations.

Amplify, the company that was rejected in the bid process, filed a challenge alleging that it was improperly passed over by state officials, citing reports that Johnson chose Istation even though a committee recommended mClass. Johnson’s office rejected the challenge on the grounds that Amplify failed to meet the deadline for a complaint, but agreed to meet with the company to discuss the contract.

Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.