Politics & Government

‘It came from nowhere.’ NC teachers question move to have computers test reading.

North Carolina’s public schools will change how they test the reading progress of young students. And that has some teachers complaining that it will hurt their ability to teach the children.

Earlier this month, State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson announced that he signed a three-year, multi-million dollar contract to switch all elementary schools to the Istation program to assess students under North Carolina’s Read To Achieve program. Istation will put children in kindergarten through third grade on a computer three times a year to test their reading skills, then print out reports for teachers.

In an email to teachers about the change, Johnson said, “Istation is a tool designed by teachers for teachers and has proven results of helping students grow.”

But teachers across the state have taken to social media to urge people to contact state lawmakers and the State Board of Education to block the change.

“We’ve got kindergarten students entering with all kinds of problems,” Jennifer Bryan Johnson, literacy coach at Blue Creek Elementary School in Onslow County, said in an interview. “Now they’re going to be expected to log onto a computer and deal with that for reading assessment purposes? It really seems the decision wasn’t made with the best interests of the students at all.”

Johnson’s Facebook post asking parents and teachers to lobby against the change has gone viral, with more than 600 comments. It has been shared more than 2,200 times. She’s among the teachers who want the state to keep using the mClass program, in which students read aloud to teachers to help assess their skills.

But Ossa Fisher, president of Texas-based Istation, says that critics need to give the new system a chance. She points to how reading scores have not improved in third grade in the six years that mClass has been used under Read To Achieve..

“Somebody decided it was time for a change and the status quo was not effective,” Fisher said in an interview.

Teachers are scrambling

Questions are being asked about how the contract was awarded. The late announcement, whose timing Superintendent Johnson has apologized for, means teachers are scrambling to get trained this summer.

Johnson went with Istation even though a committee he had formed had recommended that the state continue to use mClass, according to a blog post by Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher Justin Parmenter and a Facebook post by Amy Jablonski.

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

But Jacqueline Wyatt, a DPI spokeswoman, denied Friday that the evaluation committee had recommended mClass. She said the committee could not reach a consensus.

Wyatt said the lack of a consensus and “actions that jeopardized the legality of the procurement” caused DPI to cancel the requests for proposals. Instead, she said DPI got permission from the state Department of Information Technology to negotiate with the top-rated vendors.

“Of the available products, Istation was deemed to be the best choice,” Wyatt said.

She said that Istation will be paid $2.8 a million a year, or $8.3 million over three years. In contrast, she said, New York-based Amplify was paid $6.3 million a year to use mClass.

State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton said that the board had agreed to approve the contract based on Johnson’s recommendation. Amid the concerns that have been raised, Buxton said that the board will discuss the contract at its July meeting.

Appeal possible

Larry Berger, the chief executive officer of Amplify, said Friday that the company is considering filing an appeal over the state’s decision.

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

“The kids have bought into mClass,” said Shari Peacock, a third-grade teacher in New Hanover County Schools. “They understand the system and why they’re reading. They’re excited when they read with me.”

By hearing the students read and then asking questions, Peacock said she can zero in on where each child is struggling.

Chelsea Bartel, a Durham-based school psychologist who works with five Triangle charter schools, said the mClass data is detailed enough that it helps schools determine whether children have a learning disability.

Teachers also note that the switch is being made after the state spent $6 million last year to give every K-3 teacher an iPad for use with the mClass assessments. In addition, the state paid $3 million to buy kits containing new books and materials for every K-3 teacher in the state to use with mClass in the 2018-19 school year.

“If North Carolina has this kind of money to spend, why aren’t they spending it on personnel?” Peacock said. “We don’t have enough help in my school. There are 19 K-3 teachers, and I think we have eight assistants and they’re spread as thin as they possibly could be.”

Despite the complaints about the switch, Fisher of Istation argues that a lot of teachers don’t like mClass. She points back to a UNC-Greensboro study in which the majority of teachers surveyed in 2015 said that mClass took up too much instructional time and the information gained wasn’t worth the loss in instructional time.

In the email promoting Istation, Superintendent Johnson said it will “allow more time for teachers to teach.”

Istation allows students in a class to all take the test at the same time. It eliminates the need for teachers to have students work on other assignments while students are individually tested with mClass.

“Our mission is to support educators, empower kids and change lives by spending more time on instruction and spending less time assessing students,” Fisher said.

But some educators say that the extra time spent using mClass is worth the information it provides.

“I understand that there are concerns about testing and I advocate for fair tests and fewer tests,” Bartel said. “But of all of the tests that students have, mClass is the one I’d fight to keep.”

Supporters promote how the Istation results will be immediately available for them to use.

Some teachers say they’re skeptical of Istation since it will be the computer and not them testing the students. Istation will offer an option for students to take an oral portion of the test with teachers being able to listen to the results afterward.

“You cannot replace the personal connection between the teacher and the student.” said Michele Cox Renaldi, a second-grade teacher in the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Public Schools.

But Fisher said studies have shown that computer tests can offer very similar results as human tests while taking less time.

‘I really want a human’

Berger, the CEO of Amplify, said teachers and schools across North Carolina have asked if there’s any way they can still use mClass. Berger said teachers are understandably worried about losing a program that they’ve used for years to guide reading instruction.

”It’s risky to hope that a computer program is making the right conclusion about how kids are learning to read, especially really young kids, especially kids who may have reading disabilities,” Berger said. “I really want a human in that process.”

Berger said it’s also risky making the switch so late in the year. Fisher says that while Istation will take time to master it won’t take long for teachers to learn to use.

“We agree it is a very short time line,” Fisher said. “But we’ve done it before and we feel we can do it again.”

Some teachers are hoping the state will slow the change down for a year at least.

“We want them to take time and listen to teachers,” Renaldi said. “We don’t want to make a rash decision. It just seems like it came from nowhere.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & 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.