Teachers in the Wilkes County and other public school districts across the state are preparing to implement a controversial new reading skills assessment for students in kindergarten through third grade.

Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer for the Wilkes County Schools, said Wilkes teachers in kindergarten through third grades are undergoing training for Istation.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded a three-year, $8.3 million contract to Istation on June 7, thus replacing Amplify’s Mclass as the reading assessment tool for these lower grades.

Mclass had been used in North Carolina schools to document students’ reading skills under the Read to Achieve program since 2010.

After Johnson awarded the contract, the State Board of Education agreed to delay implementing Istation due to concerns about a compressed timeline for putting the new program in place, training teachers and collecting data in the new school year.

The delay was later lifted and school districts are moving ahead with Istation.

Cotton said that since the new assessment program was approved so late, students won’t be tested with Istation until January. Otherwise, the first testing would have occurred in September. She said students will take practice tests with Istation first.

Once the program is fully implemented, students will be tested once a month.

There also is concern about the fact that with Istation, students take a test on a computer using headphones and microphone to determine their reading fluency. Students are recorded as they are tested.

Students read directly to teachers with Mclass, which some say is better for students because they’re more accustomed to working with their teachers.

Cotton said that because teachers understand their students better, teachers are being given the option of scoring the Istation tests themselves instead of sending it to the company that provides the new assessment method for scoring.

After taking the test on a computer with Istation, a printed report is generated for teachers to use in monitoring students’ reading skills and suggest further instruction. Johnson has said it’s an excellent program that lets teachers spend more time teaching rather than giving tests.

Meanwhile, Amplify has continued its efforts protesting the awarding of the contract to Istation. The company claims the contract shouldn’t go to Istation because the assessment tool doesn’t satisfy requirements in the law and is too advanced for young children.

Amplify also claims an evaluation committee recommended sticking with Mclass, but Johnson went ahead with Istation. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction denies the committee picked Amplify and stands behind the decision to pick Istation. The bidding process to choose a vendor for the reading diagnostic tool was canceled twice.

Amplify is following a prescribed process of filing appeals with the DPI, with the company’s latest appeal going to the DPI Technology Services Division. Ultimately, the company could have to decide whether to take action in court.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, said an amendment was added to a bill giving individual public school districts the option of using the reading diagnostic program they prefer, but it said school districts would have to spend local rather than state funds if they didn’t use Istation. Elmore said this amendment was pulled because it was apparent that many school districts couldn’t afford the option of using a system other than the one funded by the state.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger has declined to launch a legislative review into Johnson’s decision to award the state’s K-3 reading assessment contract to Istation.

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