Amendment to Senate Bill 438 would allow local school districts decide whether to use Istation

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange

Update: The Senate didn’t concur with the House on SB 438 that includes Meyer’s amendment to allow local school districts to select a reading assessment tool other than Istation. The bill now goes to conference committee for negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

Local school districts could bypass the controversial Istation reading assessment program under an amendment to a bill introduced in the Senate to improve the state’s Read to Achieve Program.

The amendment to Senate Bill 438 was introduced by State Rep. Graig Meyer, (D-Orange). Seven Republicans joined 55 Democrats in the House on Monday to approve Meyer’s amendment on a 62-51 vote.

SB 438 was approved on a 75-39 vote and sent to the Senate.

Meyer noted the controversy swirling around the $8.3 million reading assessment contract in the wake of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to award the contract to Istation instead of Amplify, the vendor behind mClass. Johnson tapped Istation even though state selection committees recommended mClass, the state’s reading diagnostic tool for its Read to Achieve initiative since 2013.

Meyer said his amendment was not about the contract award, which is being challenged by Amplify, the firm ranked higher by selection committees.

“This amendment has nothing to do with the purchasing process,” Meyer said. “The other piece of it is about: Can your districts choose to use the product they believe is best for assessing their students or do they have to use the one picked by DPI [State Department of Public Instruction]? All this amendment would do is give flexibility to your local districts.”

State Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), urged his colleagues to vote against the amendment.

He said allowing districts to use different assessment tools would make it difficult to compare achievement data across the state.

“I don’t disagree with the idea of local control, but I think we all need to be able to understand how we compare one to another, not only as students but as districts across the state,” Horn said.

Meyer countered that the kind of reading assessments conducted using programs such as Istation or Amplify’s mClass are different from those used to measure achievement on end-of-course tests.

“The ability to still compare performance over the course of a year isn’t taken away,” Meyer said. “I think that this is a case where many of your school districts will want the ability to use the tool they think will help them with instruction the most.”

State Rep. Verla Insko, (D-Orange), said she is concerned there isn’t “adequate evidence” that Istation will be available for students with learning disabilities.

“Especially, learning to read for this population is really important,” Insko said. “The local people are the ones who know what’s going on with those children.”

Horn noted that SB 438 has a provision that requires the State Board of Education to analyze the passage rate for alternative assessments and to submit a report to lawmakers on the results of its analysis along with recommendations.

“The bill does call for the State Board [of Education] to take a look at this process and to analyze it and then come back to our Joint Legislative Education Oversight [Committee], which we run during the period between the long session and short session.”

He said the bill requires the report by January 2020.

“That would be the appropriate time to take up this concept,” Horn said.

State Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham), introduced SB 438 as a strategy to improve the state’s signature education program, Read to Achieve.

Adopted in 2012, Read to Achieve’s goal is to ensure all children are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the effort, the results have been dismal. More than 43 percent of third-graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

“The overarching theme is Read to Achieve is working in some places and it’s not working as well as it should in other places,” Berger said during a recent House committee meeting. “If something needs to be fixed, let’s fix it. If things are working well, then let’s try to replicate those things.”

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