Politics & Government

NC Senate Republicans reject a plan to let schools pick their own reading test tools

State Senate Republicans have rejected a plan to let individual North Carolina school districts choose the program they want to use to test their youngest students’ reading skills.

In June, 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. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 23-19 along party lines against a bill that would let schools pick alternatives to Istation, which includes the Amplify mClass program that has been used since 2013.

The House had included the language allowing districts to pick their own testing programs in an amendment approved Monday night to Senate Bill 438.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, said the provision would provide relief to local school districts, where superintendents across the state have asked for a delay in switching to Istation.

“I think, as with many of my colleagues here, I’ve heard from many, many constituents about the concerns regarding the diagnostic tool that is being recommended,” Chaudhuri said. “As a father of a rising third-grader where my son’s own school teacher uses such an assessment tool, I personally understand the frustrations that I’ve heard from teachers and parents.”

But Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, said the best thing to do is to vote down the bill and let a committee of House and Senate lawmakers work out a compromise.

“This is too important to get swept up in a one-night or two-night ago amendment that popped out of nowhere and change the process that the State Board (of Education) has gone through to sort through this problem,” Horner said.

The rest of the legislation involves changes proposed by the Senate to improve the Read To Achieve program, which is designed to get students proficient in reading by the end of third grade. Despite state efforts, reading scores have been dropping.

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.

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.

The state Department of Public Instruction’s decision on Amplify’s appeal will be released within the next several days. Amplify has said it will appeal to the state Department of Information Technology if DPI goes against the company.

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 investigate the contract.

The request for a state investigation was echoed Wednesday in a letter sent by 13 Democratic senators to Senate leader Phil Berger. The senators asked Berger to form a Senate committee to review how the contract was awarded. They also want Berger to delay the Istation contract by a year.

“We believe these steps will help restore some of the confidence lost by superintendents, teachers, and parents regarding the procurement process,” the senators write in their letter.

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

One of the uncertainties is whether Meyer’s amendment would allow districts to use state money if they didn’t use Istation. Meyer said he’s seeking a legal interpretation from staff on what funding can be used.

If only local money can be used, it would limit which districts could pay out of their own pockets to use alternatives to Istation.

The House had approved the amendment largely due to Democratic support. Nearly all the yes votes came from Democrats and all the no votes came from Republicans..

That pattern was mirrored on Wednesday when all the Senate Democrats voted to pass the bill and all the Republicans voted no.

Chaudhuri cited the controversy Wednesday as a reason for letting districts pick the program they feel works best.

“I support the concurrence because there are real serious and grave concerns about the process that was used to select the new company to carry out this diagnostic tool,” Chaudhuri said.

But under questioning from Horner, Chaudhuri said the state board would prefer that all districts use the same program.

“Many things Sen. Chaudhuri said I agree with about the process,” Horner said. “But this is a policy issue, and it goes beyond what I prefer and I hope what you prefer.”

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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.