State Board of Education votes down 4-month Istation extension

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Despite a plea from State Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Friday rejected a $1.2 million contract extension with Istation, the firm that provides the state’s K-3 reading diagnostic tool.

The SBE voted 8-2 during a remote conference call to table the contract until the General Assembly considers a request to waive the reading diagnostic requirement in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

The crisis forced North Carolina’s schools to close until May 15 or longer.

A K-3 reading diagnostic tool is required under the state’s Read to Achieve law enacted to ensure students are reading on grade level by end of third grade. Without the Istation extension, the state will be without a diagnostic tool starting March 31.

Johnson said Istation has agreed to sweeten the deal by giving students and teachers its remote learning curriculum for free during school closure.

“So that means, with what we already have in place, at no additional cost, all of the reading, math and Spanish lessons and curriculum for teachers to assign to students and to personalize their learning will be made available,” Johnson said.

Johnson won over SBE members Amy White and Olivia Oxendine, both of whom voted in favor of extending the contract.

Oxendine said teachers understand Istation.

“They may not be thoroughly pleased but they were not thoroughly pleased with mClass [a competing diagnostic tool the state used before Istation],” Oxendine said. “Going back to my early days on the State Board I recall numerous debates about mClass and most of them were negative, not always positive.”

She said allowing the contract to expire leave teachers in the “lurch” and “twiddling their fingers, pulling out their hair” trying to figure out how to provide reliable and consistent standards-based instruction in K-3 reading.

“K-3 reading, as each board member knows, we have talked about it endlessly, is the foundation of literacy in the education of our kids,” Oxendine said. “

SBE member J.B. Buxton argued against the extension.

“Do we want to spend $1.2 million in the next four months … or even a $200,000 a month to provide a tool we may not be able to administer,” Buxton said. “We are asking to be waived and we don’t know that in the near-term students can even get access to [Istation] whether it’s on smartphone or [due to] connectivity issues or potentially by print.”

Johnson said he is confident the General Assembly will waive end-of-the-year tests required by the state.

“But we have no indication from the General Assembly that they want us to violate the legislation [Read to Achieve law] that requires the formative progress monitoring,” Johnson said.

Buxton questioned the reliability of data collected from students working on Istation from home.

“I don’t know that we could call what progress monitoring would capture valid and reliable because we have no way of understanding how it’s being used at home,” Buxton said.

Several board members and Johnson alluded to the rocky history Istation has had in North Carolina.

The diagnostic tool has been a big point of contention between the SBE and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Johnson selected Istation to provide the assessment tool in August. That triggered a protest from Amplify, a competitor whose mClass diagnostic tool had been used in North Carolina schools.

The matter is still being litigated.

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