The State Board of Education resurrected its rocky relationship with Istation on Thursday by agreeing to a $243,000 contract extension with the firm it essentially fired two weeks ago.
The board approved a three-month extension of the emergency contract the state entered with Istation in January to provide K-3 reading assessments required under North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law.
The contract extension in January would have cost $1.2 million.
“The contract amendment, which reflects a considerable cost savings from prior proposals during a time of economic uncertainty, is consistent with the State Board’s determination that investing in year-end tests and state-level formative assessments is not the best use of state resources at the present time,” the board said in a statement.
Under the extension approved Thursday, the data already generated this school year will remain intact and maintained, but Istation will not gather state-level data over the next three months.
The SBE gave school districts and schools the option to negotiate with Istation individually if they want to continue reading assessments while students are at home over the coming weeks. Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered schools to be closed until May 15 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several minutes before the board approved the contract, Superintendent Mark Johnson released a statement applauding the SBE for recognizing the “error” of not extending it last month.
“It did seem absurd that the State Board of Education chose to turn off a remote learning tool for parents and students at the time in our state’s history when we need it the most, so I appreciate the Board recognizing their error and taking a common-sense approach by approving this contract extension,” Johnson said.
Johnson criticized the SBE for requiring districts to negotiate with Istation to continue assessments while students are home.
“It is disappointing that the State Board will now make school districts use local funds if they want to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown on our youngest students’ reading skills,” Johnson said.
SBE member J.B. Buxton made the strongest argument against extending the contract during a board meeting in March.
“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.”
On Thursday, Buxton voted in favor of the contract extension.
SBE member Olivia Oxendine was the lone member to vote against it.
“I’m still having difficulty with this issue and it comes down to the importance of data in the area of reading and early literacy,” Oxendine said. “It almost puts us
Istation agreed to provide its online curriculum to teachers, students and families at no cost as part of the contract amendment. It made a similar offer last month. The programs include online curriculum in reading, math and Spanish. They will be available through June 30.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the state Board of Education and other education leaders to address the shifting needs of North Carolina’s schools, as we recognize environments have changed significantly in recent weeks,” Ossa Fisher, president and COO of Istation, said in a statement.
The diagnostic tool has been a big point of contention between the SBE and 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.