As Legal Fight Over Istation Continues, Some N.C. Schools Will Start Using It Anyway

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Raleigh, N.C.

Some North Carolina elementary schools will test students soon using a new computer-based program, even though the legal fight continues over whether the multi-million-dollar state contract for the program was properly awarded.

The state Department of Information Technology is deciding whether state education officials were correct in awarding a three-year, $8.3 million contract for Istation to be used to assess K-3 students in the Read To Achieve program.

Some school districts say they can’t wait for a decision because they’re required under Read To Achieve to test their students. The testing will begin in December at year-round elementary schools, with traditional-calendar elementary schools using Istation in January.

“Istation is the only qualifying assessment tool that the state is funding, and DPS cannot wait any longer for the state dispute to be resolved if we are to meet our legal obligations,” Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for Durham Public Schools, said in a statement. “Therefore, we are reluctantly moving forward with offering the Istation assessment to K-3 students this year.”

See Also: Inside a Procurement Dispute in North Carolina

Similar time pressures are affecting the Wake County school system, which like Durham has year-round schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools doesn’t have year-round schools, but officials say they’re starting Istation testing in January.

School districts have been operating in a state of uncertainty since DIT issued a stay in late August against the new contract.

Legal Fight Leaves Schools Uncertain

“It’s an absolute mess,” said Jack Hoke, executive director of the N.C. School Superintendents Association. “Even after the ruling, it can be a mess. Whenever we get a ruling, the superintendents will comply.”

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 students have read out loud to their teachers while the teachers use Amplify Education’s mClass program to assess their skills.

But in June, State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced he was awarding the new Read To Achieve testing contract to Istation. Students will now 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.

Public records show Johnson went against the recommendations from an evaluation committee, which he had formed, that said the state should continue to use mClass.

Johnson has accused the evaluation committee of “employing biased procedures” that benefited Amplify and having made false statements about Istation. He also said that some committee members violated the confidentiality of the procurement process by discussing it with outsiders.

Under Read To Achieve, K-3 students are supposed to get a beginning-of-year, middle-of-year and end-of-year assessment. State officials agreed in June to a six-month delay before beginning the state-required assessments.

After DIT granted Amplify’s request for a stay, Johnson worked out a deal with Istation to train teachers for free through December.

Schools Using Istation to Test Students

Ossa Fisher, president of Istation, said in an interview Monday that they’ve trained more than 5,000 North Carolina educators, who are going back to their schools to train other teachers. She said 347,000 North Carolina students have been assessed so far under Istation—with 217,000 alone in November—even though it’s not yet required.

It’s unclear when DIT, which held a hearing on the stay in early October, will issue a decision.

“We hope this matter will be resolved swiftly, so that there is clarity for North Carolina teachers and school districts,” Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, said in a statement.

Fisher said that she’s also looking forward to this protest process coming to an end so people can move forward.

“The stay, in my opinion, has caused undue confusion,” she said.

Some school districts initially held off on the Istation training before moving forward as the testing deadline neared.

CMS piloted the use of Istation this fall in five elementary schools before deciding to go districtwide in January, according to Renee McCoy, a district spokeswoman.

Wake County will send a letter to parents introducing them to the program. The mid-year Istation testing will provide data on student performance and help teachers inform their reading instruction, according to Lisa Luten, a district spokeswoman.

Some Families Opt Out of Istation

But some parents are fighting the use of Istation, saying a computer-based program is the wrong way to see how well young students are reading. Michelle Craig, a pre-K teacher and parent at Briarcliff Elementary in Cary, is refusing to let her kindergartner take the Istation assessments.

“My principal said she understood my job as a parent and said she had a lot of questions that needed to be answered,” Craig said.

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Some parents in the Chapel HIll-Carrboro school system have also asked for their children to be excluded from the Istation testing. The school district has refused to let them opt out.

“The North Carolina State Board of Education has not, to date, allowed any public school students to opt out of required state testing unless there were extenuating circumstances, primarily related to serious health conditions,” said Jeff Nash, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro school spokesman.

Fisher said critics should give the program a chance, pointing to how Istation has been used since 2017 by 4 million students in 11,000 campuses across all 50 states. She said educators at those schools have found Istation to be “an incredible tool.”

“We find that the more people are familiar with Istation and us, they tend to like us and understand the quality that we can bring to the classroom,” Fisher said.

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