Politics & Government

NC House would let schools keep current program amid reading contract controversy

Corrected on July 23 to reflect who’d pay for the alternative assessments

Amid a growing statewide controversy, some state lawmakers want North Carolina school districts to be able to keep how they test the reading skills of their youngest students.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson picked the computer-based Istation program for a three-year, $8.3 million contract to test K-3 students under the Read To Achieve program. But the N.C. House passed a bill Monday night that would let schools use a different program to test students, which includes the Amplify mClass program that has been used since 2013.

Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said he proposed the amendment because of concerns that the state Department of Public Instruction would force districts to use Istation even if they wanted to use something else.

Superintendents across the state have asked for a delay in switching to IStation, citing how the change wasn’t announced until June.

“I think it’s important for us not to make a unilateral decision that everyone has to do everything just the same,” said Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat. “Our children are different. I hope you will vote for the amendment and allow the local people to make a decision about what will work for their students.”

The amendment has a limitation that could restrict its usefulness for some school districts, especially less affluent ones. Meyer said he believes that districts would have to use their local funds if they want to use an alternative to Istation.

The state is only paying when districts use Istation. Meyer said he didn’t think the amendment would have passed if the state picked up the costs for the alternative tests.

But Meyer later tweeted Tuesday night that he’ll ask for a staff interpretation on whether state funds can be used.

Senate Bill 438 goes to the Senate to see whether it supports changes the House made to the bill. The rest of the bill involves changes proposed by the Senate to improve the Read To Achieve program in the face of declining reading test scores.

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

The decision to switch has been controversial, with teachers across the state questioning the change on social media. Istation has said that teachers who are now being trained in the new program will come to like it.

The selection of Istation also has drawn controversy because public records show Johnson overrode the recommendations from an evaluation committee, which he had formed, that said the state should continue to use the mClass.

Johnson has said that Istation is the best diagnostic tool for the state to use. He also has criticized the work of the evaluation committee and said there are reasons why Amplify was not picked that he can’t publicly disclose until the company’s protest of the contract is resolved.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators held a news conference Friday asking State Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood and state lawmakers to review the contract.

Meyer pointed to the contract controversy Monday when he proposed amending the legislation. While it’s related to the controversy, Meyer said his goal is to give school districts flexibility in what assessment they use.

“This is a case where many of your school districts want the ability to use the tool that they think will help them with instruction the most,” Meyer said.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, unsuccessfully argued against the amendment, saying that all of the state’s school districts should use the same program.

Horn also said the state has already agreed to delay using the data from Istation by six months to give teachers and students time to get used to the new program.

Meyer’s amendment, which gives school districts flexibility in choosing a reading program, was approved 62-51 mostly due to Democratic support. Of the 62 votes, 55 were from Democrats.

The entire legislation was approved by a 75-39 vote.

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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.