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Istation Will Launch NC Reading Tests Before State Can Pay

elementary school students

A company that recently won an $8 million contract to test the progress of North Carolina’s youngest readers has now agreed to provide that program at no charge — at least for now.

It’s the latest twist in a controversy that’s creating confusion as students return to school.

Teaching children to read is one of the most important things elementary school teachers do. But measuring their progress has turned into a tangled mess in North Carolina, as vendors, educators and public officials battle over the best way to test children’s reading skills.

That’s why Istation, a Texas-based company that recently won an $8.3 million contract to take over that testing, has signed an agreement with state Superintendent Mark Johnson to roll out the program even before the state can pay.

Istation President Ossa Fisher says she expects to get the green light for payment, but it’s important not to wait.

"Educators in North Carolina need a reliable assessment tool, a formative assessment tool, to inform their instruction and make sure that the students are getting the data and insights that they need," she said Tuesday. "We’re ready to provide that, and I think that’s what’s most important right now."

Johnson and Istation are being challenged by Amplify, the company that has provided the reading tests for the last six years, and by educators who say Amplfiy’s mCLASS program works better. There have been accusations of impropriety on both sides: Istation critics say Johnson improperly overrode a recommendation from an evaluation committee, which wanted to stick with mCLASS. Johnson says some members of that committee had conflicts of interest and violated confidentiality.

Last week North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology temporarily blocked the state from moving ahead with the Istation contract.

This dispute doesn’t affect the End-of-Grade reading exams that are given to students in grades three and up. What’s at issue is the smaller tests given to K-3 students throughout the year to gauge whether they’re on track to pass their third-grade exams.

The results are used not only to see which kids need what kind of help, but to rate their teachers’ effectiveness. Istation's Fisher says the data matters even to people without children.

"If I’m a taxpayer and I don’t have a student in the school system," she said, "why I care is because having reliable and consistent beginning-of-year data, middle-of-year data and end-of-year data will help us understand how North Carolina is performing as a state."

That’s a big issue here. After six years, the state’s Read To Achieve program has demonstrated little progress toward boosting third-grade reading proficiency.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have decided to take a first-semester break from the state-mandated reading checks. Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley says that will give educators time to prepare for whatever program the state ultimately settles on.

"What’s really important, especially if our teachers have any implications on their evaluation process, that we provide them enough professional development and space to begin to implement," Kingsley said.

But Fisher says more than 20 other districts are moving ahead with Istation, which uses computerized tests to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses. The company says during the summer more than 4,000 educators were trained to use Istation and 14,500 students have already started testing. That includes schools that opened earlier this month and some that just brought their students back Monday, Fisher says.

"We’ve had 2,000 students in the state of North Carolina test today and I think that’s up almost 5,000 since Friday," she said. As she spoke from the company's Dallas office, Fisher said she could look at the dashboard and see 158 North Carolina students using Istation.

The ripples from this conflict just keep spreading. The Department of Public Instruction has filed a legal request asking the IT department to reverse its decision. The motion, filed by Attorney General Josh Stein, says freezing the Istation contract “will force DPI and schools around the state to cancel teacher trainings (and) delay vital learning activities.”

Educators may face confusion about testing and data. But as of Monday, about 1.5 million North Carolina students are back in class. And their reading lessons are gearing up, despite the contract dispute.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.