After weeks of controversy, records show NC superintendent chose different reading test than recommended

Posted July 12, 2019 9:42 p.m. EDT
Updated July 12, 2019 10:23 p.m. EDT

— After weeks of controversy over North Carolina's new contract with a K-3 reading test company, State Superintendent Mark Johnson released more than 150 pages of internal documents late Friday in response to numerous public records requests for the information. The records show some of the state education department's behind-the-scenes discussions about which company should be chosen for the multimillion dollar contract.

Committees of education leaders that reviewed the companies competing for the contract ranked Amplify the highest, followed by Istation, the records show. Despite the majority of committee members recommending Amplify, the state superintendent chose to award the contract to Istation, setting off a weeks-long controversy over the decision.

The superintendent's office previously told WRAL News that the committees did not reach a consensus and made "no recommendation" to him about which company to choose. Johnson's office has repeatedly disputed claims by Amy Jablonksi, a former Department of Public Instruction staffer who led one of the committees and said she shared the recommendations with Johnson personally.

Jablonksi, who is running for state superintendent, has criticized Johnson for "going against the advice" of educators and experts.

In a statement, Johnson warned that the records he released late Friday are incomplete – more will be released later – and "might not present a full picture of the process." He said some committee members made "misstatements of facts" that were later clarified and corrected but not updated in the records.

"It is our hope, though, that these public records help to eliminate some of the misinformation," he wrote.

Johnson's decision to choose Istation, which tests K-3 students' reading skills using computers, angered some educators who said the new program will result in increased screen time and reduced human interaction for students. More than 80 superintendents also shared concerns about the decision and asked for a one-year delay before using the new reading test.

Despite the outcry, the State Board of Education decided to move forward with using Istation but agreed to delay collecting data measuring students' progress and growth for six months so teachers and students could get accustomed to the new tool.

Amplify, which has worked with North Carolina public schools since 2013, is protesting the state education agency's decision to choose Istation and has demanded that the contract be suspended or terminated. The state superintendent wrote to Amplify leaders to say that their protest was "untimely" and "procedurally defective," but he offered to meet with them.

An Amplify spokeswoman told WRAL News that the company's leader is planning to meet with state education leaders next week.

Meanwhile, Istation has already begun training teachers and posting updates on its social media accounts to share positive reviews it has received from teachers so far. In a press release Friday, Istation President Ossa Fisher said North Carolina teachers have had "high praise for the program."

"Educators lauded the program for its ease of use and array of benefits for both the teacher and student," she wrote.

The state superintendent is standing by his decision to choose Istation, saying it is the "best reading diagnostic tool for North Carolina."

"I believe using Istation will yield quality data that will better support success for our students, meeting students where they are and helping them grow, while also reducing the time teachers must spend testing students," Johnson wrote. "DPI and the State Board adhered to all laws, rules, and policies during this procurement to ensure fairness and objectivity. We are excited about the end result of a partnership with Istation to support students and teachers across North Carolina.”