Politics & Government

After outcry from educators, NC will delay use of computer-based reading test

North Carolina education leaders will slow down implementation of a new computer-based program that will change the way elementary schools test the reading skills of young students.

The State Board of Education agreed Friday to a plan developed by State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff, where elementary schools will wait until January before officially using the Istation program to measure student progress in kindergarten through third grade.

The six-month delay would be used to train teachers. State officials said that schools can use Istation during the summer and fall to get students used to the program but it won’t officially count for evaluating teachers and schools.

“We absolutely understand that this is a quick turnaround implementation, which is why we want to go ahead and get into schools but give all of September, October, November, December to be months where students and teachers are learning this new tool and then no metrics are measured until January,” Johnson said at Friday’s conference-call board meeting.

The news comes after superintendents from across the state, including in Wake and Durham counties and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, asked state leaders for a one-year delay because they said it wasn’t realistic to quickly train teachers at year-round schools that start in July. News about the new program wasn’t announced until June.

Johnson said that a one-year delay would require legislative approval, which state board member Olivia Oxendine said was unlikely to be given.

Currently, students in kindergarten through third grade read aloud to teachers three times a year using the mClass program from Amplify Education Inc. Istation will print out reports for teachers based on the results of tests taken on the computer program.

“Forty year-round elementary schools in Wake County will open in one week,” Wake Superintendent Cathy Moore said in a letter Thursday to Johnson. “Even if training were available, it is both impractical and disrespectful to assume teachers can prepare classrooms and master a new learning tool in less than five days.”

While the delay wasn’t as long as initially requested, the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association said it appreciates the new time line.

“The six months will allow time for planning, time to implement and practice online testing procedures for a new diagnostic tool, provide time for schools to inform parents of the new language associated with Istation and reporting, and provide districts time to determine what additional supports teachers will need,” said Freddie Williamson, the association’s president, and Jack Hoke, the group’s executive director, in a joint statement Friday.

“We know teachers will appreciate the January date for the first true benchmark window for EVAAS purposes.”

Ossa Fisher, president of Istation, said the company quickly agreed to the change when it was suggested by the state Department of Public Instruction. She said this fall will become a practice opportunity for schools to get used to the program.

“Learn by doing is a great way so the first time they use the program is not a high-stakes testing window,” Fisher said in an interview Friday. “That could be very stressful.”

On June 7, Johnson announced that he had signed a three-year, $8.3 million contract to switch all of the state’s elementary schools to Istation to assess reading skills under the Read To Achieve program. Since then, teachers and school leaders across the state have voiced concerns both about changing programs and about the short time line for transitioning to Istation.

Questions have been raised about how the contract was issued. DPI had initially requested proposals on two separate occasions before eventually negotiating directly with Amplify and Istation.

Amplify filed a protest Monday asking state officials to suspend or terminate Istation’s contract while its appeal is heard. As part of the protest, Amplify cites online posts that mClass was recommended by an evaluation committee formed by Johnson but that he chose Istation anyway.

DPI has denied that the committee recommended mClass.

Johnson said Friday that he would go into why the selection process was delayed “when the procurement process is completely over.”

“Trust me,” Johnson said. “I do look forward to sharing with the public any and all information I can as to why this was delayed twice.”

Istation has accused Amplify of filing a frivolous protest. The company has also pointed to how state test scores in third-grade reading have dropped while mClass was used in the Read To Achieve program since 2013.

Despite the back-and-forth between both companies, state board members said Friday that their concern was only about the aggressive time lime for starting Istation and not about the program itself.

“This is not a discussion about whether we’re going back to mClass,” said state board member Amy White.

State board chairman Eric Davis stressed the importance of the issue, which he said was more than just making a decision about what reading tool to use.

“It’s really a decision about the signature education policy of the state of North Carolina for this decade: Read To Achieve,” Davis said. “No other policy have we staked our reputation as an education state on than on Read To Achieve.

“We’ve invested over $150 million in this important program and it’s received a tremendous amount of effort by our teachers, our principals, our superintendents and all members of the education team. Unfortunately the results have not met our expectations or our students’ needs.”

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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.