After months of controversy, legal maneuvering, Amplify Education awarded state’s K-3 reading assessment tool

Mark Johnson

Former state superintendent Mark Johnson ignited a firestorm of controversy a couple of years ago when he selected Istation to replace Amplify Education, Inc., as the provider of the state’s K-3 reading assessment tool.

The move led to months of legal wrangling after Amplify appealed the decision with the Department of Information Technology.

After it was all sorted out, school districts were allowed to choose from among five vendors on a list approved by NC Department of Public Instruction.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved a three-year, $14.5 million contract that put the contract back into the hands of a single vendor – Amplify. The state had previously used Amplify’s mClass reading assessment tool before Johnson’s switch to Istation.

“For reference, that’s comparable to what we had paid when we had a single-source contract two years ago,” Alan Duncan, chairman of the board’s Business and Operations Committee, said of the $14.5 million contract.

A K-3 reading diagnostic tool is required under North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law, which set a goal to have all students reading on grade level by end of third grade.

The program has been a failure, even though the state has spent more than $150 million on the early childhood literacy program since the law was approve in 2012.

In 2018, a study by NC State University researchers found that the state’s youngest students had made no reading gains under the program. The study reported that only 55.9% of students were proficient in third grade down from 60.2% the year the program was implemented. The National Assessment of Educational Progress also showed North Carolina’s reading scores to be lower than before Read to Achieve launched.

The reading diagnostic tool will cost the state $8.7 million in the first year. That covers the first year of service, support materials and training that will be needed. It will cost the state $2.9 million in the second-and third years of the contract.

“I know many of our districts have enjoyed the ability to have flexibility selecting a tool,” Duncan said. “The problem is, through the legislation, we are charged with being able to develop statewide data and with a multiplicity of tools, you’re not able to put together statewide data in a comprehensive form.”

Amy Rhyne, director of the Office of Early Learning, said it had become difficult to turn around data in a timely fashion.

“It was taking eight to 10 weeks minimum to turnaround the data because of the process we had to go through,” Rhyne said.

She said coordinating calendars with multiple vendors also proved challenging.

“If you have one vendor, you typically have biweekly or at least monthly meetings to make sure you’re on top of things,” Rhyne said.

Districts still have the option to choose another vendor but must purchase the diagnostic tool, Rhyne said.

The new assessment tool comes as the state moves to a phonics-based approach to teaching young children to read.

State Superintendent is a supporter of what is called the “science of reading,” which relies heavily on phonics. State teachers will be trained in the science of reading.

Critics say that relying heavily on phonics isn’t the best way to teach young children to read.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Raleigh News & Observer’s editorial board in April.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed Republican-backed Senate Bill 387 requiring the phonics-based approach to reading, even though he vetoed similar legislation in 2019.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said in an April statement. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

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