Inside a Procurement Dispute in North Carolina
State's choice of reading test stirs bigger questions
North Carolina officials' switch in reading-test vendors just weeks before the new school year got underway is spotlighting the often murky process of contracts and procurements for K-12 services.
Deep disagreements linger over whether the $8.3 million, three-year contract was properly awarded to the Dallas-based company Istation. Some educators, including a former state education department employee, are seething that top officials ignored an internal panel recommendation to award the contract to New York City-based Amplify, not to Istation.
But State Superintendent Mark Johnson contends that members of that committee failed to follow the right procedures and violated their confidentiality agreements—thus requiring the state to redo the competition, where Istation eked out the win.
Beyond the accusations of favoritism, the debates shine a light on the potential pitfalls in large state K-12 procurement processes—as well as how key purchases, like testing systems, can affect every classroom's approach to teaching.
New Laws, New Products
In the mid-2010s, North Carolina passed several laws relating to reading, including requiring diagnostic reading exams for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and requiring school boards to screen students for dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The results are used to target some students for summer school, and eventually can lead to some students being retained at the end of 3rd grade.
Amplify had held the contract to supply the diagnostic assessment, teacher training, curriculum, and online supports for teachers for a number of years. That contract went up for rebidding in 2018.
According to documents obtained through public-records requests, the internal committee judged Amplify the best, if the most expensive, of the four bids that came in. Shortly thereafter, the documents show, state officials suddenly canceled the RFP, entered into negotiations with the two top vendors directly, and ultimately selected Istation, which had come in second in the earlier committee ranking.
The decision was made by a second, smaller committee at the education department, without any outside teachers or educators to act as advisers. They decided that Istation's approach was more adaptive and "personalized" to students than Amplify's—though they also deemed it weaker on its ability to screen students for dyslexia.
For Amy Jablonski, who oversaw the first evaluation committee and left the department in December 2018, the decision set a bad precedent for teachers, disregarded their input into the procurement process, and could discourage them from sitting on other panels.
"The experts made the decision, recommended the decision, and then a different decision was made," she said.
Amplify immediately protested the award, noting apparent differences in the two committees' review criteria. But in a detailed response, Johnson denied the protest.
Among the documents he cited is a text message purportedly from one of Jablonski's committee members seeming to disclose information from internal discussions, in violation of a nondisclosure agreement. At least one committee member also had past ties to Amplify, he said. But the text exchange also appears to show that committee members felt pressured by Johnson to select Istation.
Amplify has since requested an administrative hearing with the state Department of Information Technology, which is reviewing the matter.
The situation has fueled debates over a number of classroom teaching issues, notably about best practices for screening for students with dyslexia, and about how much contact young children should have with technology.
Istation uses an all-computer-based assessment approach, in which students match letters to sounds and are recorded reading a passage. (Teachers can also administer exams one on one.) With the Amplify product, each student is individually assessed reading a passage by his or her teacher.
Dyslexia advocates in the state are concerned about whether it's possible for a computer-based exam to measure all the components of early reading and oral fluency.
North Carolina has already delayed by six months the date on which results from the exams start to filter into school ratings in response to superintendents' concerns. Mainly, district leaders said, they just want to be sure that they understand how to use the tool as school begins.
"I think that teachers are open minded to change if they can understand how it can benefit their students. They're still trying to take that in," said Rhonda Schuhler, the superintendent of the 8,300-student Franklin County district.
"One of their concerns is that it's a student interfacing with technology and we're committed to making sure that regardless of what the tool looks like, the teacher is a vital part of that, and they're there with the student and there's that interaction that takes place," she said. "It's just an important part of reading development."
Whatever happens next, there's likely to be political fallout.
Unlike other states that appoint their state chiefs, North Carolina elects its state superintendents. And Jablonski has announced plans to challenge Johnson for state superintendent in 2020.
Vol. 39, Issue 01, Page 11Published in Print: August 21, 2019, as Inside a Procurement Dispute in North Carolina