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Johnson’s deal to implement Istation despite stay

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson signed an agreement today to get around a stay that’s delaying the implementation of Istation. Johnson and Istation insist the stay by the Department of Information Technology (DIT) last week ignored due process, and Istation is implementing the tool for free while DIT reviews the state’s process in awarding the contract to the company.

“I want positive change for our student and educators, and I know Istation does, too,” Johnson said in an emailed statement. “Today, I am announcing that Istation believes in supporting public education in North Carolina so much, they have agreed to continue training teachers at no additional cost during this ridiculous DIT review. The MoA I signed today will facilitate Istation continuing their efforts at no additional costs to taxpayers while also respecting the improper stay irresponsibly put in place by DIT lawyers last week.” 

Istation is the state’s newest reading diagnostic tool. The stay was requested by Amplify, the vendor that previously provided the state with its reading diagnostic tool — mCLASS — which was used as part of the Read to Achieve initiative to increase third-grade reading proficiency. Maggie Bizzell, a DIT spokesperson, said the department is reviewing the procurement process and could not comment further.

“We’re currently going through the administrative review and following the law for that process,” Bizzell said in an emailed statement.

Read to Achieve legislation required the state to go through a new procurement process to choose an assessment vendor for the 2019-20 school year. After the procurement process was canceled twice, Johnson entered into direct negotiations with two final vendors — Amplify and Istation — and went with Istation in June. The contract awarding process was heavily questioned by Amplify and other education advocates afterwards. Documents released by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) showed the evaluation committee assembled by Johnson ranked Amplify as its first choice. Johnson and DPI have stuck by their choice, saying conflicts of interest and improper weighting methods made the evaluation committees’ results unfair.

Istation COO Ossa Fisher said the company will continue to train teachers and implement the tool in classrooms for free until the stay is lifted. 

“Istation is committed to continuing the important work we began this summer, especially now that the school year has begun,” Fisher said in an emailed statement. “While stirring fear, uncertainty, and doubt continues to be the strategy of the losing vendor, we will continue to uphold our commitment to North Carolina: helping students across the state develop critical grade level reading skills. Neither DPI nor Istation have received a response from DIT concerning our requests for an emergency hearing on the stay, which was imposed without due process. Due to this uncertainty, we have agreed to work with DPI, educators, parents, and students without pay until the issues surrounding the stay are resolved.”

After the DIT stay last week, Amplify CEO Larry Berger said the company was pleased their motion was approved.

“This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT,” Berger said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Today, Berger said in a statement that multiple individual school districts are choosing to continue to use Amplify’s mCLASS.

“We look forward to working with DIT and DPI to resolve the matter as quickly as possible,” Berger said. “We continue to be gratified by the multiple districts that are addressing the situation by partnering with us directly on continuity plans.”

The state’s plan was to train teachers over the summer and implement the tool in classrooms as school starts back this year but delay the formal collection of data from the tool for six months. Johnson said today that Istation has already trained thousands of teachers and “onboarded almost 400,000 students.” Many students have already been using their tool in class.

“Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for NC educators, students, and parents,” said Johnson in today’s statement. “More-of-the-same is what the Establishment political system prefers, but the old tool was a burden on our teachers and failed to help our students. Change was needed. Istation was selected after a fair, just, and legal procurement process. Change was the right choice.” 

Before the controversy around choosing a new diagnostic tool, research from the Friday Institute for Education Innovation showed Read to Achieve, in which the state has invested more than $150 million, was not making a difference in improving reading proficiency. The report was presented to the State Board of Education. Senators backed legislation to make changes to the initiative, which includes intervention strategies for struggling readers like summer reading camps and supplemental tutoring. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that bill, which is called The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019, last week.

“Teaching children to read well is a critical goal for their future success, but recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly,” Cooper said in a statement. “A contract dispute over the assessment tool adds to uncertainty for educators and parents. This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

The latest twists and turns in the Istation saga

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.