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Iredell County elementary students in grades K-3 have new computer-based reading assessments under North Carolina’s Read To Achieve Act. As a result of state superintendent Mark Johnson’s controversial decision, educators in Iredell County are concerned that they are less directly involved in ensuring their students are reading at the appropriate level.

Prior to the start of the 2019-20 North Carolina school year, Johnson switched contractors for K-3 elementary reading assessments from in-person to computer-based, according to a written statement from Johnson this past summer.

Under 2013’s Read To Achieve Act, North Carolina requires standardized testing for elementary school students to ensure they maintain a proper reading level dependent on their grade level.

The previously used in-person assessments are referred to as mClass and were operated through a company called Amplify. The current computer-based assessments are operated through Istation.

The computer-based reading assessments have been used in Iredell County since the start of this school year, causing concern and frustration among the county’s elementary educators.

Alison Whitaker, instructional facilitator at Cloverleaf Elementary School, said that her teachers preferred the human interaction that was integral to mClass over the computer-based assessments from Istation.

“No one has said they prefer Istation,” Whitaker said, referring to her teachers at Cloverleaf.

Jonathan Ribbeck, executive director of elementary education for Iredell-Statesville Schools, said that he can see the benefits of both programs. He said that Istation produces faster results while mClass results are more accurate as it requires teachers to listen to their students read out loud.

Jamie Royall, first grade teacher at Cloverleaf, said that she strongly preferred mClass because of the lack of personal interaction associated with Istation.

She said that it goes against the objective of ensuring that students learn to read at their grade level.

“We’re going backwards with Istation,” Royall said.

Cloverleaf Principal Andrew Mehall said that despite the drastic differences between the two programs, teachers are adjusting well because of the efficient processes already in place.

The selection of Istation as the state vendor for Read To Achieve has been controversial to many.

Former DPI employee Amy Jablonski said in a Facebook post in June that state superintendent Johnson ignored the recommendation of an evaluation panel that Jablonski said in the post consists of educators, school psychologists and researchers.

“Mark Johnson went against the advice of our educators and experts,” Jablonski said. “This is the result of putting politics, not kids, first.”

The evaluation panel, consisting of DPI employees, examines potential vendors for the reading assessments and presents their findings and recommendation. With the state superintendent’s approval, that recommendation is selected as the vendor, according to state legislation from 2017.

Justin Parmenter, a public school teacher in Charlotte, wrote in a blog post that he and other public officials pushed for the DPI to make the evaluation panel’s findings publicly available.

The findings were then made publicly available in July, and they revealed that Johnson did ignore the panel’s recommendation, as mClass was listed as the most desired vendor in the documents.

The lone weakness of mClass that the panel documented was that there were many assessment measures that were unnecessary and needed to be turned off.

One of the weaknesses listed for Istation in the documents is that it is not a reliable screener for dyslexia due to its insufficient testing for language fluency.

The cost per student under each reading assessment program was included in the documents. The mClass program costs $25.78 per student while Istation costs $6.60 per student.

The contract between the state Department of Public Instruction and Istation has not been finalized, though.

In August, the state Department of Information Technology granted Amplify, the owner of the mClass program, a stay on the contract while the dispute over how the contract was awarded is being heard, according to documentation from the DIT.

On Dec. 7, the DIT extended that stay pending a full hearing on the contract negotiation process with Istation, according to a statement from DIT hearing officer Jonathan Shaw.

Shaw wrote that there is sufficient information to indicate that the DPI violated the law regarding Johnson ignoring the recommendation of the evaluation panel.

The statement details how Johnson accused members of the evaluation panel of bias and violation of a confidentiality agreement for their preference of Amplify’s mClass over Istation.

Istation will continue to be used in Statesville public schools until the legality of the Istation contract is determined.

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