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NC Education Official Weighs In On Istation Legal Battle

Some teachers in North Carolina will begin using Istation for assessment in December and January.

North Carolina school district officials are still not sure what program they will use long term in assessing kindergarten through third-grade students' reading skills. Jack Hoke, executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents Association wants state education officials to make a decision soon, so teachers can be trained and data collected.

The problem arose when state Superintendent Mark Johnson went against the recommendation of an evaluation committee and this summer awarded the more than $8 million assessment contract to Istation. The company that had done the assessments for six years, Amplify, challenged the decision and the state Department of Information put a stay in place while it decides if the contract award was done properly. 

Some teachers around the state have been trained on Istation and will begin using it in December and January, without the company being paid. Hoke spoke with Gwendolyn Glenn about the situation.

Jack Hoke: We need for the Department of Information Technology to make a ruling so that we know how to proceed going forward. I think districts have embraced Istation and I'm not saying every district has, but I think the majority of the districts are on board with Istation. We just need to have a final ruling so our teachers and school administrators know what to expect for the rest of the school year with our K-3 rating assessment, which is so critical to the success of our elementary schools and in the life of the child. 

Gwendolyn Glenn: Well, let me ask you this: What's the difference in Amplify and Istation? And is it significant?

Hoke: Both of them, again, are rating diagnostics. They probably do things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day, the teacher should be getting good information on what students are doing well and what students need to improve on. And that's the purpose of the diagnostic, to allow the teachers to have feedback on their students so they can change instruction if they need to with each individual student.

Glenn: You mentioned in an article with the News and Observer that this is an absolute mess. What were you referring to then?

Hoke: I was referring to the stay with the Department of Information Technology. It's the uncertainty that's created -- the mess and the stay. And then anytime you have a stay, that should be for a couple of weeks and then get the groups together and are satisfied. Well, the stay happened in August. It'll be December and they still haven't resolved the stay.

Glenn: During this uncertainty, what is happening in terms of collecting data?

Hoke: The actual data that will count on students will occur in January and in May. So they'll have middle-of-year data compared to end-of-year data. Usually, you have a beginning-of-year data, middle-of-year data and end-of-year data. So we'll just have two data points instead of three on students.

Glenn: So there won't be a resetting to start this all over with that beginning-of-year data missing?

Hoke: No, no. The folks at the Department of Public Instruction, Istation, will be able to calibrate from the middle of the year to the end of the year and provide a growth score for students. Again, not ideal, but it will certainly work. And again, that should just be for one year. 

Glenn: And what about in terms of training with this uncertainty? Do you think that the training of teachers has been hurt during this process? 

Hoke: I don't think so. I think Istation has come in, and I've been with Istation at a number of regional meetings talking to the superintendents and chief academic officers, they have gone to each region and set up regional trainings and they've gone to individual school districts. So I think the training has not been impacted because of the stay with the Department of Information Technology.

Glenn: So what has been affected in a negative way? 

Hoke: Well, the uncertainty, because with any assessment system, whether it's Amplify or Istation, you can buy some ancillary materials that go along with their programs that can help kids. They’ve chosen not to purchase those because of the uncertainty. 

Glenn: Now, is that going to be a problem because I have no idea how long it takes to purchase these materials and then get them in the classroom?

Hoke: If they do away with the stay, folks could order those and have them in the classroom probably within two weeks, two to three weeks. 

Glenn: So what do you think is going to happen? Are you hearing when all of this is going to be resolved? What are you hearing? 

Hoke: My understanding is the judge that's handling the protests from Amplify will rule on that somewhere Dec. 5 or 6. If they rule to do away with the stay, I would think Amplify would probably file in Superior Court Wake County to fight the contract. And I would suspect if Istation, if they kept the stay, would probably do the same thing. So I think this is not going to end in December. I think this will be ongoing. But at least if we have a direction, school districts will kind of know how they need to proceed for second semester. 

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.