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Stalemate Over Istation Leaves Districts Wondering How To Proceed With Read To Achieve Testing

elementary school students

The summer break has been fueled with controversy among teachers and administrators over a reading program called Istation. North Carolina Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded Istation an $8.3 million contract in June to test the reading skills for K-3 students. But, this came after a selection committee recommended sticking with the current reading program provided by a company called Amplify. 

Johnson canceled that procurement process and started over with a new committee before signing a contract with Istation. Many teachers are concerned the program removes them from the testing process – and that it fails to recognize signs of dyslexia.

Amplify challenged the contract, and on Tuesday the state Department of Information Technology temporarily blocked the state from implementing the Istation contract. CMS Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley says the battle over which program will be used means a significant change for students in grades K-3. Because of the state’s deadlock, Kingsley says, CMS simply won’t administer any state reading exams until January. While teachers will still check students’ progress, that means less time on testing.

“Yes, they will spend less time. We have made a decision to not only not implement Istation in the fall, but we are not implementing in the fall or throughout the course of the year the MAP assessment,” Kingsley said.

MAP is another reading test that CMS used last year, but he said the confusion as school begins next week has been stressful for teachers and administrators.

“A lot of this is unfortunate - the timing in terms of when it was announced to teachers, it has put our school systems, especially us large school systems, it’s really put our backs against the wall,” Kingsley said.

That timing is why 88 superintendents asked for a one-year delay in implementing Istation, a request that the State Board of Education denied.

WFAE requested an interview with State Superintendent Johnson. His office has not responded but in defending his decision Johnson has written that Istation saves teachers time and provides immediate results for parents to track the literacy progress of their children.

Joining us now to discuss why this has been so controversial among teachers is the CMS teacher Justin Parmenter. He teaches 7th grade at Wadell Language Academy and writes the blog Notes from the Chalkboard.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Thanks for joining us. 

Justin Parmenter: Thanks for having me.

Glenn: Explain why this is such a big deal in the school system and why are teachers so concerned about IStation?

Parmenter: Well I think the reason it's such a big deal is because it's a fundamental change in the way we assess all kindergarten to third-grade children across the state of North Carolina and how they read. Teaching reading to young elementary children is probably the most important thing we do in our schools. And so to change the way that we measure how well we're achieving that teaching and learning I think is a big deal for sure. 

Glenn: Now you have expressed concern with how this contract was approved. What's the problem with that (process)?

Parmenter: Well, the problem is that I think you know good leadership works through consensus and is transparent and I'm not sure that's what happened in this case. There was an evaluation committee that was put together to inform the procurement process. They overwhelmingly recommended a different tool to use. That's the tool that we've been using since 2013. It's called mClass, made by Amplify. The committee overwhelmingly recommended that tool -- it was a committee that was made up of professional educators from a variety of backgrounds by design.

The superintendent then disregarded their input and then went a different direction. And I think that when we're making decisions that are going to impact our children so profoundly I think it's very important that input from professional educators is considered because they're the ones who have the most clear line of sight to how those changes are going to affect our system and our children.

Glenn: Now CMS’ chief academic officer, Brian Kingsley, has said many teachers don't have a preference. Do you have a preference for one of these programs over the other and if so why?

Parmenter: I do and you know I've spoken with a number of early elementary teachers. I've got a child of my own who's going to be in second grade this year so it's personal to me. And what those teachers have told me is that the information that a teacher can get from assessing a child one on one from watching them read from watching what they do when they struggle with a word you know they use that information to tailor instruction to that child.

A human can just note things in that interaction that a computer cannot. So I feel that the human teacher is much more capable of coming away with useful information that's going to then lead to more effective teaching and learning for that child.

Glenn:CMS has said there will be less time assessing students reading skills because of this stalemate. Are you worried about the effect this will have on children this year? 

Parmenter: Yeah I do think it's going to be a problem to start the year a little bit unclear at this point how assessments are going to look across the state whether we'll have any consistency across the state and how we begin the year. So it's definitely a concern. And I think it's also going to be a challenge to have the state working closely with districts to find a solution to that problem because you know this whole issue kind of originated with the state so I'm not sure you know what that's going to look like in terms of the state stepping in and providing a solution to districts.

Glenn: You teach seventh grade. You won't have to administer this test. Why is this such a big concern for you is it because you're a parent or you're hearing from colleagues. What's your concern here?

Parmenter: Well I think my concern is as a parent, my concern is as a colleague of those K-3 teachers. But I also believe that you know the other side of it apart from the classroom impact I believe that that we need to have leadership in place which governs through consensus and I believe that educators really need to have a seat at the table, and need to have a voice in shaping the policies that are crafted and that affect all of our schools statewide. And it's clear to me that in this case educator input was not honored in the way that it should have been. And I think that's the problem that we really need to take a careful look at and learn from.

Glenn: Well thanks for talking with us today. 

Parmenter: My pleasure.

Glenn: Justin Parmenter teaches 7th grade at Wadell Language Academy and writes the blog Notes from the Chalkboard. Superintendent Mark Johnson emailed superintendents statewide today saying that the way the Department of Information Technology issued its stay on the Istation contract does not appear to be aligned with the agency's own procurement rules. He did not provide details. Meanwhile, Istation filed a motion with DIT for Amplify stay to be dismissed.

Superintendent Mark Johnson's Response To Amplify's Protest

Education Education
Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.