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The Peculiar Politics of Reading Software for Early Literacy

JLF’s Dr. Terry Stoops released a research brief this week on the unusual scenario playing out as the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) switches the reading proficiency software in North Carolina schools. According to Dr. Stoops:

Since 2013, North Carolina has used a computer program called Amplify mClass to assess the reading proficiency of elementary school students as part of the Read to Achieve initiative.  Late last year, DPI officials and staff began the process of evaluating reading programs for the next contract cycle.  

…In March, State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced that the evaluation process was compromised.  Thanks to a whistleblower, he had learned that “one of the committee members failed to disclose that they had a prior business relationship with Amplify…” DPI’s general counsel canceled the procurement process, and Johnson awarded the contract to Istation.

Since this announcement, Amplify has protested the decision, claimed Istation’s software does not meet the requirements set out by North Carolina, and called for public officials to intervene and overturn the decision. Stoops explains there has been much uproar since the decision:

Public school advocacy organizations and a small group of activist educators have refused to take Johnson’s explanation at face value.  In an article about the dispute published in the News & Observer, Suzanne Miller of N.C. Families For School Testing Reform said that Istation “was rushed into schools in an irresponsible and disrespectful manner that’s disruptive for districts, educators and students. and won’t yield the desired results.”  NCAE President Mark Jewell added, “It is clear that there must be outside intervention to fix this flawed process.”  They have asked for a one-year delay.

Dr. Stoops describes how many see the dispute as highly political:

It’s no secret that Johnson’s critics support one of the many Democratic candidates that will seek the State Superintendent’s office in 2020… Depicting [Republicans like Johnson and Berger] as incompetent, conniving, crooked, and ignorant is politically advantageous, even as there is no direct evidence of wrongdoing.

According to Dr. Stoops, however, changes clearly needed to be made:

Last year, researchers at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State published a report that found that Read to Achieve failed to increase student performance on state reading tests.  This was a disappointing outcome, given the sizable investments in Amplify mClass, reading camps, and other measures designed to increase the number of students who are proficient readers.  Perhaps this shakeup is a small but necessary first step to ensuring that our children are on the right track.

Read the full brief here. Learn more about PreK-12 education in North Carolina here.

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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