Under a blazing mid-morning sun with the North Carolina legislative building as a backdrop, NC Families for School Testing Reform on Friday doubled-down on its demand that state education officials delay implementation of the controversial Istation K-3 reading assessment tool for one year.
The parent advocacy group has also asked Attorney General Josh Stein and State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to award the $8.3 million contract to Istation after selection committees ranked a competing firm higher.
Selection committees chosen by Johnson ranked Amplify’s mCLASS assessment above Istation.
Johnson and the State Board of Education (SBE) have agreed to move forward with implementation of Istation. However, data collection for teacher performance evaluations will be delayed until January.
“We believe that the time frame for program implementation is insufficient and we’re concerned about possible irregularities in awarding the contract for testing services,” said Suzanne Miller, an organizer for the advocacy group.
Miller was joined by a dozen or more parent advocates, educators and N.C. Association of Education President Mark Jewell at a 10 a.m. press conference held on Bicentennial Mall.
Several speakers took aim at Johnson’s limited teaching experience and questioned where he’s able to make decisions that are in the best interest of North Carolina’s school children.
“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 mess.”
Jewell joined Miller in calling on Johnson and state education officials to delay implementation of Istation until after an investigation has been conducted into the contract award.
“We see now 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 the best for North Carolina,” Jewell said.
Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators and an elementary school librarian, lamented what she contends is a movement by Johnson and like-minded education officials and lawmakers to supplant teachers with technology.
Burton said educators thought the technology revolution would increase tests scores and close the achievement gap.
“We are seeing all the unintended consequences that technology has had on our children,” Burton said. “It has decreased their attention spans. Our children can’t really decipher from what’s real information and fake news and it definitely didn’t [eliminate] the achievement gap.”
Paula Dinga, an elementary school teacher from Buncombe County, said educators are better at determining whether a child is learning to read than technology-based assessment tools.
“We are intimately aware of their reading behaviors and can apply our professional judgment to designing the best instructional environment,” Dinga said.
Susan Book, one of the co-founders of Save Our Schools, a parent led advocacy group, asked parents and advocates to ask Stein’s office to conduct an investigation into the Istation contract.
She also urged them to keep “pounding” away at Johnson, the State Board of Education (SBE) and state lawmakers until the truth about the contract is revealed.
“They have the power to look into this too,” Book said of state lawmakers. “It’s our legislature that gave the State Superintendent unprecedented powers and it’s our legislature that has the power to take it away.”
In 2016, the SBE and Johnson were locked in a bitter battle for control of the state Department of Public Instruction after Republican lawmakers transferred some of the board’s power to Johnson.
The SBE sued, but the N.C. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge’s panel ruling that the transfer of power was constitutional.
Miller has submitted a letter to Stein’s office asking for an investigation into the procurement process that led to Istation being awarded the reading assessment contract instead of Amplify.
She also asked for help in securing public records about the contract award the group requested from the NCDPI.
“We requested multiple times for the full records into this procurement process and finally received 166 pages, but they noted there are more documents that are not being released, and this is a huge concern we have,” Miller wrote to N.C. Department of Justice’s Open Government office.
The advocacy group’s press conference came a day after Amplify officials met with NCDPI to discuss the contract award.
Details of what happened inside the meeting were not shared. But NCDPI spokesman Graham Wilson provided this statement late Thursday:
“DPI and the Superintendent have followed and continue to follow all applicable laws, policies, and rules related to the procurement process. Today, as part of that process, we met with the losing vendor as per their request.”
Wilson said Johnson has 10 days to respond to Amplify and will do so before July 28.
Miller, Book and Chelsea Bartel, a school psychologist tried to attend the meeting between Amplify and NCDPI staffers but were asked to leave by security guards who told them the meeting was not open to visitors or media.
Bartel is one of three people who received “cease and desist” letter from an Istation attorney demanding that they stop making “false and misleading” representations about the company.
The others went to Amy Jablonski, a former Department of Public Instruction employee who has announced she’s running for state superintendent and Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte teacher, who has written extensively about the controversial contract award on his blog, “Notes from the Chalkboard.”
“It’s a curious PR strategy for a company that you’d think would be focused on winning over North Carolina teachers right now,” Parmenter wrote this week. “It’s unfortunate to see attempts like this to silence educators who simply want the truth and what’s best for our children.”