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Protest filed over state superintendent’s Istation pick

Amplify, the company the state has contracted with to measure literacy in early elementary grades, filed a formal protest against the state Monday because of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s choice to switch to another platform. 

The company’s formal protest states the online platform Istation does not meet requirements in the department’s RFP (request for proposal). As part of the state’s Read to Achieve legislation, which aims to increase third-grade reading proficiency, teachers in kindergarten to third grade have used Amplify’s mCLASS tool since 2010. The tool is based off teacher observations and offers two main literacy measures: DIBELS (dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills) and TRC (text reading comprehension). The protest letter reads:

“IStation’s product plainly fails to meet key requirements established by North Carolina law, including in demonstrating accuracy in assessment outcomes, and in identifying students with dyslexia. Further, IStation’s ISIP product does not use ‘developmentally appropriate practices’ for the K-3 population as required by statute and will not deliver the teacher interaction needed to properly assess student reading skills or detailed data teachers rely on to deliver instruction in elementary classrooms. In addition, IStation’s assessment does not satisfy express requirements of the procurement at issue in this letter. Because it does not meet North Carolina’s needs, the use of IStation will lead to outcomes that are detrimental to North Carolina students.”

The protest was filed because of the state’s switch in vendor and its cancellation of the RFP process in February 2019.

“The main factor is genuinely believing that our solution is a better one for North Carolina and that experts in the evaluation process indicate that that was their decision and choice in the process and yet somehow it didn’t end up that way,” said Amplify CEO Larry Berger in an interview with EducationNC. “That’s the main thing, but I do feel that we are also wanting to make sure the process was legitimate from beginning to end.”

Moving forward, Kay Moffett, Amplify’s Chief Marketing Officer, said the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has 10 days to decide whether or not to hold a protest meeting regarding the letter. “If that is rejected, Amplify may seek a hearing before the North Carolina Department of Information Technology,” Moffett said in an email. 

According to the press release, the company has requested “that the state suspend the contract award to IStation, pending the outcome of its protest.” The full letter is embedded at the end of this article.

DPI spokesperson Graham Wilson said in an emailed comment that Istation was the best option and that the State Board of Education approved the vendor.

“State purchases require strict processes and legal parameters, which were followed and will continue to be followed. In addition, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the product. After a fair weighing of all factors of the available products, Istation was deemed to be the best choice.”

Istation President and Chief Operating Officer Ossa Fisher said in an emailed comment that the company was chosen based on their proposal’s merits and their results.

“Istation won the contract based on the merits of our proposal and our proven results working with teachers and millions of students across the country. We are actively engaged with educators as we roll out our initial training and implementation. We look forward to working with teachers and administrators during this phase, and with students as we enter the new school year.”  

Wilson provided the following reasoning for the state’s Istation pick via email: 

“Of the available products, Istation was deemed to be the best choice. State law requires North Carolina to have one reading diagnostic tool for every K-3 class. State law required the Department of Public Instruction to evaluate diagnostics and select one to be implemented next school year. Istation is a tool designed by teachers for teachers and has proven results of helping students grow. Here are some exciting aspects of Istation for K-3 teachers and students:

  • Istation’s goal is to provide teachers a quick and easy-to-use tool to allow more time for teachers to teach with personalized instruction, 1-on-1 supports, and small group learning environments.
  • Istation is intuitive, its assessments are formative, and its content adapts to the individual needs of students.
  • Students receive personalized data profiles and because the formative assessment is quick and easy to take, students are able to spend more time with their teachers than they do on devices.
  • An entire class can be assessed in approximately 30 minutes, and data is available to the teacher immediately, allowing him or her to immediately begin personalizing instruction.
  • Teachers will be able to select from 3000 teacher-led lessons and lesson plans to help assist in this personalization. These lessons are recommended to the teacher based on a student’s individual needs.”

As far as the RFP cancellation, Wilson wrote: “The RFPs were cancelled during the evaluation phases due to actions that jeopardized the legality of the procurement and a lack of consensus.”

He said following approval of the NC Department of Information Technology, the negotiation process with top-ranked options began. Istation was then awarded the contract based on those negotiations. 

In an email from Johnson to the North Carolina School Superintendents Association published on Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter’s Notes from the Chalkboard blog, Johnson said every team member who took part in the procurement process signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Teachers and advocates have been vocal about concerns that the new platform, Istation, does not measure reading ability adequately and eliminates human interaction during assessments. Amy Jablonski, a former Department of Public Instruction (DPI) employee who is now running against Johnson for state superintendent, said she was co-owner of the project to choose a vendor. She said the RFP process was first started in 2017 after the state budget required the department to choose a vendor. After the process was cancelled and started again in 2018, Jablonski said the evaluation committee, which consisted of DPI employees and subject matter experts from across the state, recommended that the state stick with Amplify. 

Wilson said the evaluation team did not reach consensus. 

“That is not true,” Jablonski said in an interview with EducationNC. “They did reach consensus and that is not okay to say that because those are our educators and we pulled them in to do this work and for them to not be held in high regard is not going to be okay.” 

Jablonski said the evaluation process was an in-depth one and that the members decided Amplify was the best based on national research. She said Johnson was not part of the evaluation meetings but that she met with Johnson in December to go through the team’s notes, ranking of the vendors, and pros and cons of each vendor. She said they communicated that the measures Amplify owns are the most effective for several purposes.

“The DIBELS measures are the strongest measures out there from over 40 years of research, and Amplify happens to own the electronic rights to them,” Jablonski said. “… This is about using what’s in research nationally out there as the strongest measures to identify risk in literacy, and also meets the criteria for screening for dyslexia, which is required, and also provides the strongest measures for validity and reliability to make sure the students determined as at-risk are actually those students.”

Updated at 4:07 P.M.:

Jack Hoke, executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association, said in their Quarterly Superintendents’ meeting Sunday, more than 85 superintendents unanimously decided to request a one-year delay in the implementation of Istation. Training teachers to start using the tool in the fall, and even sooner for some year-round schools, is too tight of a timeline, Hoke said. 

“We’re not saying the issue’s Istation,” Hoke said. “The issue is to be able to implement a pretty significant change in the assessment system with minimal time to train the teachers.”

Hoke said after Johnson shared a presentation with the superintendents Monday on the Istation choice, superintendents requested a one-year delay in implementation. Current state law requires that implementation start in the upcoming 2019-2020 school year. Hoke said later this week the superintendents will file a formal request to both Johnson and the State Board of Education to see if they can request a one-year delay from the General Assembly. 

“Teachers don’t have time to digest the shift in the assessments,” Hoke said. “They’ll be expected to do the assessment immediately on the heels of their own training without time to clarify their understanding or dig deeper. Again, we want whatever we’re doing for kids — there’s nothing more important than reading, especially at the early level — we want it to be successful. But that’s hard to do at least with this short turnaround.”

The PowerPoint Johnson presented to the superintendents is below.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.