Politics & Government

Company challenges NC’s new contract to test young students using computers

North Carolina’s handling of a multimillion-dollar contract to change how it tests the reading progress of young students is being challenged by a company that claims it was improperly passed over by state education officials.

In a protest filed Monday, New York-based Amplify Education Inc. contends that its mClass system is superior to the Istation program chosen by the state Department of Public Instruction to test children in kindergarten through third grade. Amplify cites reports that mClass was recommended by an evaluation committee formed by State Superintendent Mark Johnson but that he chose Istation anyway.

Earlier this month, Johnson announced that he signed a three-year, $8.3 million contract to switch all elementary schools to the Istation program. Istation will put children in kindergarten through third grade on a computer three times a year to test their reading skills, then print out reports for teachers.

With mClass, students read aloud to teachers to help assess their skills.

Amplify is asking DPI to suspend or terminate its contract with Istation while the protest is reviewed.

“As many who participated in this evaluation have now stated publicly, Amplify was the most qualified bidder and should have been awarded the contract,” Amplify’s attorney, J. Mitchell Armbruster, says in the letter. “Its solution would be the best value to the State of North Carolina.”

DPI is defending how the contract was awarded.

“State purchases require strict processes and legal parameters, which were followed and will continue to be followed,” Graham Wilson, a DPI spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. “In addition, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the product. After a fair weighing of all factors of the available products, Istation was deemed to be the best choice.”

DPI has also denied that the committee recommended mClass.

Since the Read To Achieve program was started in 2013, teachers have used mClass to test K-3 students three times a year. It’s part of an effort to try to get children proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Ossa Fisher, president of Texas-based Istation, stood behind the program.

“Istation won the contract based on the merits of our proposal and our proven results working with teachers and millions of students across the country,” Fisher said in a statement Monday. “We are actively engaged with educators as we roll out our initial training and implementation. We look forward to working with teachers and administrators during this phase, and with students as we enter the new school year.”

As part of its complaint, Amplify cites posts from Amy Jablonski, who says that the committee found mClass to be better than Istation.

Jablonski led the evaluation committee before she quit her position at DPI. She’s also a candidate now for state superintendent.

State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton said Friday that the board had agreed to approve the contract based on Johnson’s recommendation. Buxton said that the board will discuss the contract at its July meeting.

Teachers across the state have taken to social media to urge people to contact state lawmakers and the state board to block the change. They’ve complained about both the use of a computer-based program to test reading skills and that the change wasn’t announced until June 7, causing them to scramble to learn the new program over the summer.

Istation has asked teachers to give the new program a chance. They say that it will take much less time to use than mClass, freeing up teachers to spend more time on instruction as opposed to testing.

Istation has also pointed to how reading scores have dropped in third grade despite the use of mClass.

Istation is being paid $2.8 million a year in the new contract. In the letter, Armbruster says Amplify offered to reduce its current contract amount of $6.3 million a year by 40 percent to $3.8 million.

In addition to questioning Istation’s program and how the contract was issued, Amplify is citing how concerned teachers are about making the last-minute switch.

“Because school is starting very soon and the State Board of Education intends to further review the award, forcing a rapid implementation of a new product while a protest is pending (and while most teachers are not at work and not available to be trained) would be ill-advised,” Armbruster writes.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.