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Why are parents and educators calling for an investigation of Istation pick?

Parents, educators, and activists are calling for an outside investigation into the process that led Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to change the platform that measures K-3 students’ reading proficiency. 

NC Families for School Testing Reform, a parent advocacy group, organized a press conference Friday in Raleigh to express concerns about the state’s switch from Amplify to Istation and the procurement process that led to the state’s contract with Istation in June.

“We’ve heard conflicting answers and we’ve heard conflicting timelines and that’s part of what we’re so concerned about,” said Suzanne Miller, an organizer with the advocacy group. Miller said the group has sent investigation inquiries to State Auditor Beth Wood and Attorney General Josh Stein, as well as calling on the General Assembly to investigate. She said the group supports a one-year delay in implementation, or a delay until an investigation is complete.

“We don’t want our children using something that’s being investigated for possible problems,” Miller said. The group’s entire letter to Johnson, signed by more than 350 other organizations and people, is below. 

Questions have been raised over the last couple months over why Johnson chose Istation when the evaluation team judging the vendor proposals recommended sticking with Amplify. In documents released by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) last week, evaluation team members ranked Amplify as the group’s top choice. For legal reasons, the RFP (request for proposal) process was then canceled in February and the state went into direct negotiations with both companies, ultimately deciding on Istation. That cancellation was the second time the state stopped the process. Amplify has also filed a formal protest on the state’s decision and process. The company met with DPI for a closed meeting in the protest process on Thursday. The superintendent has 10 days to respond, according to DPI spokesperson Graham Wilson. 

“DPI and the Superintendent have followed and continue to follow all applicable laws, policies, and rules related to this procurement process,” Wilson said in a statement Friday. “Yesterday, as part of that process, DPI met with the losing vendor as per their request. The next step in this process will be the Superintendent’s response, which will be issued between now and July 28.”

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, also spoke at Friday’s press conference, supporting the call for an external investigation and blaming the predicament on Johnson.

“This current debacle is another example of administrative mismanagement and deception on the part of the state superintendent,” Jewell said. “Had he simply followed the recommendation of the experts he himself assembled to advise on the subject, we would not be in this current mess that we’re in. Instead, Superintendent Johnson chose to repeatedly breach his own department’s protocols to arrive at what can only be assumed as a pre-determined outcome. By now, it is clear that there must be outside intervention to fix this flawed process. We see no reason why this hastily made decision cannot wait until a proper investigation is conducted before haphazardly implementing a system that does not appear to be in the best interest of North Carolina.”

Paula Dinga, third-grade teacher in Buncombe County Schools and president of the Buncombe Association of Educators, said she has not been the biggest fan of mCLASS, Amplify’s assessment tool K-3 teachers across the state have used for several years to measure students’ reading. She said assessing children has taken away from instructional time but that an online tool is not the solution. 

“[mCLASS’s] best quality I believe is its requirement to put a student face-to-face with a trained professional human being, one in whom they have a vested trust and a requisite enthusiasm to perform at their peak ability,” Dinga said.

She said she is worried that teachers will not be able to inform instruction accurately based on an online platform’s results and that children will lose confidence and motivation during online assessments.

“We are trained well to hear the student’s fluency and diagnose the errors we hear in decoding, phrasing, and comprehension,” she said. “Having heard the child read out loud, we make many decisions about instruction that target desired skills with precision. We are intimately aware of their reading behaviors and can apply our professional judgment to designing the best instructional environment. Reading is about the human condition and how we can understand the people and the world around us. It should not be assessed by removing the human component.”

Dinga said time and money have been wasted in professional development and training related to mCLASS and that further resources spent on a new platform are unnecessary. She also said she has problems with a choice that did not reflect educator expertise.

“The answer to the question, ‘How do we accurately assess our students’ reading ability?’ It is not more screen time, separated from the professional ear of the trained teacher,” Dinga said. “It is also not to separate the voice of experience of teachers and education professionals from the decision to invest millions of dollars and millions of hours of training to jump on a technology bandwagon.”

Michelle Burton, a librarian in Durham County Public Schools and president of the Durham Association of Educators, said she has seen technology have negative impacts on students’ attention spans and abilities to decipher between real and fake information. She echoed the sentiment that a human is needed in the literacy assessment process. 

“Basically, we’re putting a child on a computer, a 5, 6-year-old, and telling them to assess themselves,” Burton said.

Claire Green, a Cary parent of two children who were struggling readers, said she attended the press conference because she thinks the current platform should be used more effectively rather than being thrown out completely.

“I thought it was important to come out today because we do need to focus more on screening our children for reading and we’re making quick changes that I don’t think have been thought through,” Green said. “mCLASS is usable, it just needs to be used in a different way. And that would save our schools money and they’re already trained to use it, so let’s just fix what we have rather than starting again.” 

Chelsea Bartel, a school psychologist at multiple charter schools in the Triangle, said she received a cease and desist letter Monday from Kieran Shanahan, an attorney representing Istation. She said the letter was two-part, alleging that she had defamed Istation and warning her to preserve her emails and texts since January 1. 

“It was definitely scary because I’m still paying off my student loans,” Bartel said. “I don’t have an attorney. I don’t have money. So the idea that a multi-million dollar company is coming after me with their very high-powered, well-connected attorney sending me this letter, I thought, ‘Wow, what did I do?'”

Bartel said she looked back through the things she had written and posted. 

“I have definitely been vocal in not liking some of the things they do and in questioning some of their research methods, but that’s ok,” she said. “That’s science. It’s not defamation.”

Bartel said she was concerned that the decision felt “top-down” and started researching the platform, requesting the evidence behind the platform’s results. She said she started looking through the links Istation sent her and compiling a document on concerns about the platform. She has since been vocal on social media about her issues with the platform and with the state’s decision-making process, sharing two Google Docs with her notes on the platform’s dyslexia screening and its implementation in other states

“The further I went, the more questions I had,” she said. “So I would keep tweeting and messaging them on Facebook and emailing…”

Bartel said she tried to set up a meeting with DPI staff but heard no response. She also stopped hearing responses from Istation.

“Istation pretty much stopped responding once they saw I was not a fan of their product, and then I got the cease and desist,” she said. 

She said she hopes events like Friday’s press conference, as well as an outside investigation, will push the state to be more transparent. 

“I would like to think that it will make a difference and that someone will say, ‘Ok, I’m going to use my power to look into this.'”

Shanahan released a statement Monday on the cease and desist letters. 

“Istation was legally and appropriately awarded the contract in North Carolina and has a proven record and reputation as an industry leader in early education assessments across the country. The cease and desist notices provided are a lawful and appropriate starting point to end the misinformation, set the record straight, protect Istation’s interests, and let the state move forward,” Shanahan said. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.