...But, statewide tests coming in the Fall
The Murphy administration has wrapped up its plans to postpone standardized testing for this school year, confirming with districts this week that there will be no state testing this spring and telling them to be ready for it in the fall instead.
The state Department of Education on Wednesday alerted districts to the final plan, ending months of speculation — and considerable confusion — as to what the administration sought to do and what the federal government would allow.
The state last week had initially informed districts of its plans to postpone the tests pending federal approval, but officials acknowledged a week later under questioning from legislators that there were still details to confirm with the federal Department of Education.
Pulling plug on battery of tests
Apparently with the details now confirmed, the state’s memo on Wednesday laid out those final details. First off, it said the NJ Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA), the extensive battery of online tests in language arts, math and science, would be canceled for the second year due to the pandemic and the considerable difficulties it caused.
In its place, the state would administer an abbreviated Start Strong assessment in the first weeks of the new school year — but with a few adjustments. The test would be mandatory for all districts and cumulative scores would be released to parents and the public, just as the NJSLA is. It would also break down by student categories, such as gender, income and race.
“Given that Start Strong assessments will be used to satisfy federal general assessment requirements, the same federal reporting requirements that ordinarily apply to NJSLA will apply to Start Strong,” the state’s memo read.
In addition, the memo also said the tests would be given to grades four through 10, apparently skipping the third grade, which had been part of the state’s battery of tests in the past. The department maintains the fourth-grade test at the start of the school year will measure third-grade skills.
The one exception will be the two specific categories of students that will still be part of state testing this spring, those with limited-English skills taking the state assessment known as ACCESS and those with significant disabilities taking a test known as Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM). Participants for those two tests would represent close to 100,000 students.
No end to argument
State testing has been a significant point of contention among school advocates, both for and against, and the debate hardly seems to have abated much even with the state’s announcement.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate’s education committee, has pressed for the state to continue the testing this spring to help measure the extent of learning loss, especially in disadvantaged communities where access to online instruction has been more limited.
Ruiz (D-Essex) said Thursday that she still has questions about whether the federal government fully understands that the Start Strong assessment is not the equivalent of the NJSLA, something the department itself has acknowledged. She has asked for the state department to get that confirmed in writing.
“I asked that they produce clear documentation on that,” Ruiz said in an interview. “I haven’t (received that yet), but I believe they are working on it.”
Ruiz said she would also continue to press the state to have some formal testing of students in the earliest grades this spring, especially since third graders do not appear to be included in the state’s plan for the fall.
“This will now be two years (without measurement),” she said, citing how the early grades are especially critical in teaching literacy. “If the state is in fact asking for testing of other cohorts this spring, we should be offering to both third and fourth grades as well.”
Other advocates supported the decision, but also raised questions.
Keep using Start Strong test?
“Although the U.S. Department of Education should have granted full … testing waivers to all states, we are happy that they are allowing New Jersey to use the Start Strong test next fall, which will take less than two hours rather than multiple days to administer,” said Julia Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools Community Organizing, a public school advocacy group.
“Students should not lose learning time to weeks of testing,” she said in an email, “which raises the question of why we can’t continue to use Start Strong to meet our (federal) obligations going forward?”
The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said it hoped the debate would open the way for more discussion about the future of state testing in general.
Start Strong “will basically be student assessment lite, but at least they can be administered in a single class period,” said Michael Cohan, the NJEA’s director of professional development.
“Right now (the NJSLA) takes up so many hours and weeks on end, and the results aren’t back to schools for months,” he said.