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Plan to switch literacy assessments underway, state will delay official metrics collection for six months

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson outlined an implementation plan Friday on a call with State Board of Education (SBE) members to switch literacy assessment systems in K-3 classrooms across the state. Collecting official accountability metrics will be delayed six months to give teachers time to learn the tool this fall.

“What we want is to make sure that teachers have the fall semester, so September, October, November, December,” Johnson said. “They will have already had the training. We want them to be able to ease into the use of this tool so they can truly learn it, learn it with their students, see the great reports that they can get from this tool, see how those reports can help inform instruction, and they can do this without having to worry if those metrics are being used for all the other accountability metrics…”

He said training on the online assessment tool provided by Istation is already underway through webinars. Initial training will continue throughout the summer and first weeks of school, with representatives from schools doing in-person training with Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff and returning to their schools to train others in 60-90 minute sessions. Johnson and DPI K-3 Literacy Director Tara Galloway said all teachers will be trained on the tool by mid-August but that supports from the company Istation will be offered throughout the school year. 

“The training is already going on and this is about hearing the needs of the districts and respecting the fact that this is a new tool, that this is an aggressive timeline, but acknowledging that this tool is intuitive and it is a 60-90 minute training and then I believe teachers will find that they will be able to pick it up and students will be able to pick it up with ease and also being able to use it in practice for months before the metrics are officially measured,” Johnson said.

SBE Chair Eric Davis provided context for the discussion as it began, emphasizing the importance of Read to Achieve, the state’s initiative to increase third grade reading proficiency. Up to this point, Amplify’s mCLASS tool was the diagnostic tool attached to the initiative. A June announcement of the switch to Istation left many teachers concerned about quick turnaround, its online nature, and the reliability of its measures.

We asked K-3 teachers what they thought about switching literacy assessment tools. Over 400 told us.

Istation President Ossa Fisher released a statement backing the implementation plan Johnson shared.

“We are eager to get started working in North Carolina and agree that a modified implementation plan will allow for an even stronger deployment of Istation. By allowing teachers and students to become familiar with the program in the fall, but not using the assessment for official benchmarking until the winter, we will enable a “learn-by-doing” model that should serve all new users very well. The fall implementation will be accompanied by a full support system, including in-person workshops, on-demand webinars, technical assistance, and more. 

We are excited to bring Istation’s products to North Carolina’s early readers and believe it is the right program – at the right time. After six years of Read to Achieve, the data shows that North Carolina’s students are no better off than they were before the law. Our products have proven results based on research and by working closely with teachers and more than four million students nationwide. 

Istation’s programs are consistently successful for young readers in districts across the country. We value our partnership with educators and remain committed to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with teachers and parents – starting immediately – providing the resources and training needed to deliver the results that North Carolina’s students deserve.”

Davis acknowledged the flood of feedback the state has received since its approval of the vendor switch. 

“I would remind my colleagues that this item is more than just simply a decision about a tool,” Davis said. “It’s really a decision about the signature education policy of the state of North Carolina for this decade, Read to Achieve. No other policy have we staked our reputation as an education state than on Read to Achieve. We’ve invested over $150 million in this important program and it’s received a tremendous amount of effort by our teachers, our principals, our superintendents, and all members of the education team.”

A January report from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation found Read to Achieve has had no impact on third grade proficiency rates.

Davis continued: “Unfortunately the results have not met our expectations or our students’ needs. And so while we’ve offered suggestions, many of which have been well-received to improving this policy and program, there’s still much work that needs to be done.”

Since the June announcement, the state’s current vendor Amplify filed a formal protest with the state on its decision to switch vendors and its cancellation of the RFP process for the second time in January. Istation replied defending its contract win. Johnson said on the SBE call that once the procurement process is officially over, he will reveal why those two cancellations occurred.

“Trust me, I do look forward to sharing with the public any and all information I can as to why this was delayed twice,” Johnson said. He called the implementation timeline unfortunate. Delaying for an entire year, as was the original request of the North Carolina Schools Superintendents’ Association (NCSSA), would require a legislative change.

SBE member Olivia Oxendine said she has been informed that the legislature is not willing to budge on the timeline. Since its original request, NCSSA leaders have been supportive of the six-month implementation plan. NCSSA President Freddie Williamson and Executive Director Jack Hoke said they stand behind the new plan in an emailed statement:

“We appreciate the six month delay for the implementation of Istation.  The six months will allow time for planning, time to implement and practice online testing procedures for a new diagnostic tool, provide time for schools to inform parents of the new language associated with Istation and reporting, and provide districts time to determine what additional supports teachers will need. We know teachers will appreciate the January date for the first true benchmark window for EVAAS purposes.”  

Galloway also said she is confident the tool provides effective measures to screen for dyslexia, which was one of the concerns raised by teachers and advocates. 

Growth of one virtual charter approved, another denied

The state’s controversial virtual charter school pilot was also a topic of discussion on Friday’s SBE conference call. Both of the schools, NC Cyber Academy and NC Virtual Academy, are requesting to increase enrollment by 20% and grow past their legislative cap.

The current law allows the schools to increase by 20% each year, reaching a maximum of 2,592 students. The law reads that at that time, “The State Board of Education may waive this maximum student enrollment threshold, beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation, if the State Board determines that doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.”

SBE members unanimously voted to deny NC Cyber Academy’s request for growth, following the recommendation of the Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB). Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, told SBE members that CSAB did not feel lifting the enrollment cap would be a good idea considering the school’s recent change in management. Machado also said the current projected enrollment for the school does not require lifting the cap. 

On the other hand, SBE members approved the request from NC Virtual Academy, also in line with CSAB’s recommendation, with four members voting yes and three voting no. Vice Chair Alan Duncan explained his decision to vote against the amendment was based off three years of the school receiving Ds in the state’s A-F performance grade system and not meeting the state’s growth standards. 

Duncan said he hopes they will focus on improving those results before “the added burden of having to take on a number of additional students while still having that challenge before them.” The other two “no” votes were from Davis and Jill Camnitz.

Machado said CSAB’s reasoning to recommend the growth is that brick-and-mortar low-performing charter schools are allowed 20% enrollment growth annually. 

The pilot was originally supposed to end after four years in 2017-18 but the legislature added another four, extending the pilot through the 2022-23 school year.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.