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NC Superintendent ignores input of professional educators, opts for increased screen time for schools’ youngest readers

As the 2018-19 school year wound down and teachers began their well-earned summer breaks, Superintendent Mark Johnson dropped an unexpected bombshell: North Carolina schools would be scrapping the mClass reading assessment system and replacing it with the computer-based Istation program.

North Carolina schools have used mClass as the diagnostic reading assessment tool in grades K-3 since the Read to Achieve legislative initiative was implemented in 2013.

Johnson’s announcement of the change referred with no apparent irony to “an unprecedented level of external stakeholder engagement and input” which had gone into making the decision. He neglected to mention that he had completely ignored the recommendations of those stakeholders.

When the Request for Purchase (RFP) for a Read to Achieve diagnostic reading assessment first went out in the fall of 2018, a statewide committee of experts in curriculum and reading instruction was assembled largely under the direction of Dr. Amy Jablonski, then-Division Director of Integrated Academic and Behavior Services at the Department of Public Instruction, to inform the process.  

This team included specialists in general education, special education, and English language learner services, school psychologists, representatives of Institutions for Higher Education, dyslexia experts, and school and district leaders. They reviewed the four vendors that were passed through to the team, including mClass and Istation, working extensively through detailed demonstrations with all four products before determining which would best serve the needs of North Carolina’s children.

The committee presented its recommendation to Superintendent Mark Johnson in December of 2018. They noted that students and teachers needed a tool which could accurately assess risk in all domains of reading. They noted the crucial importance of having a teacher actually listen to a child read and sound out words. They noted the legislative requirement of an effective dyslexia screener. And they recommended that schools continue using the mClass diagnostic tool, which they believed best accomplished all of those things. 

Six months later, Superintendent Johnson completely disregarded the recommendations of those professional educators in announcing his unilateral selection of the computer-based Istation diagnostic tool.  

There are a few reasons Johnson’s decision is problematic, apart from its unilateral nature and dismissal of the input of knowledgeable stakeholders.

Poor timing: Announcing the change just as teachers leave for summer vacation means there will be insufficient time for educators to get up to speed with the new materials before they have to start using them for the 2019-2020 school year. For year-round schools which are beginning their school years in early July this is an even bigger problem. 

Increased screen time: The adoption of Istation means increased screen time for our youngest students. Excessive screen time is already a major concern of many parents and educators, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which notes that “a growing body of evidence suggests that the use of media while engaged in academic tasks has negative consequences on learning.”

Reduced human interaction: As the selection committee pointed out, having a teacher listen as a child produces sound is a crucial part of literacy instruction. Teachers who use mClass sit with their students and observe their reading behaviors. This one-on-one interaction allows educators to quickly and accurately identify students who need additional help and pursue appropriate interventions to get them on track. Istation marginalizes those classroom teachers, instead requiring children to look at a computer screen and react to what they see rather than actually reading letters and words and creating sounds for a qualified human teacher to evaluate. 

Potential lack of correlation with state assessments: Research demonstrates that mClass results are highly predictive of performance on North Carolina End of Grade reading assessments. Not only does Istation lack that level of documentation, Denver Public Schools recently had to reduce the impact of early literacy scores on school rating systems because third graders who scored well on Istation were scoring so poorly on year-end reading tests that concerns were raised about the validity of results.

Insufficient screening for dyslexia: In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law mandating that students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia “receive the necessary and appropriate screenings” and tasking local boards of education with reviewing “diagnostic tools and screening instruments used for dyslexia…to ensure that they are age-appropriate and effective.”   

Effective screening for dyslexia requires having a reader produce sounds and read words to determine whether phonological processing problems are present. Because Istation is an online tool, its phonological awareness measure is limited to having students listen to a sound and match it with an answer choice instead of actually segmenting individual sounds out from a spoken word by producing it on their own. This approach is inconsistent with the International Dyslexia Association’s recommendations on dyslexia assessment and appears to fall short of meeting the General Assembly’s mandate as well. The mClass tool which has been in statewide use since 2013 aligns much more closely with those requirements.

Decreased student motivation: One key to getting accurate measures of student ability is maintaining high levels of engagement and motivation.  For elementary students especially, sitting in front of a screen and working alone can quickly turn to drudgery, and that feeling can negatively impact results. This concern was recently raised by Idaho teachers who mentioned that first graders using Istation lost interest and began randomly clicking answers because “they just wanted to be done.”  

Here in North Carolina, teachers who have used the program i-Ready for individualized online reading instruction report similar problems with motivation. Michele Jordan, third grade teacher in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, says, “It was a joke. My kids clicked through because it was boring. They complained about it and preferred print books, and I could never rely on the data because they didn’t take it seriously.” When reading instruction and assessment involves one-on-one interaction with the classroom teacher, it is much easier to maintain the engagement necessary to accurately assess students.

When Superintendent Johnson announced the selection of Istation, he offered his sincere apologies for the delay and acknowledged that the timing would put school districts in a hard spot with implementation beginning so soon. However, according to Dr. Jablonski, her team asked the superintendent to consider requesting a one year extension by the General Assembly to allow more time for the process to play out. He declined.

With so little transparency around the process, it’s hard to know exactly what was going on behind closed doors at the Department of Public Instruction between when the RFP review committee offered its recommendation way back in December and Mark Johnson’s eventual announcement that Istation had been selected—although it’s interesting to note that Istation CEO Richard Collins has been a major donor to Republican party candidates for office over the past decade:

What is clear is that Istation is the wrong choice for North Carolina’s children. Our students need their love of reading and their growth as readers to be nurtured through human relationships and engaging interactions with their teachers. Those teachers need to be afforded sufficient time and training so they can implement programs with fidelity. And our students who require the most individualized support need us to have effective tools in place that allow us to diagnose their needs as early as possible so we can get to work meeting them. Mark Johnson’s unilateral Istation adoption is going to make it a lot harder for us to achieve those important goals.

Justin Parmenter

Justin Parmenter is an English teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina.