The worry of so-called “learning loss” from the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the discussion around New Jersey’s public schools reopening in full this fall, eventually prompting the Murphy administration to introduce a new expedited battery of state testing to measure who lost what.
Those online assessments — optimistically titled “Start Strong” — were given over the last five weeks to nearly 1 million New Jersey students in 45-minute chunks and measured to their post-pandemic prowess in language arts, math and science.
But now comes the hard part: What to do with the results?
With the school year barely underway, the assessments were given to grades 3-11 as the state’s answer to the fact that students hadn’t seen virtually any statewide testing for two years due to the pandemic.
The state is required by federal law to provide at least some assessment of student progress, and the administration went with the expedited tests that were a fraction of the usual spring testing but would provide near-instant results on whether students were at or below grade level after two years of disruption.
And by some accounts, the administration of those tests was largely beneficial, even surprisingly so. The state’s principals association testified at the Legislature’s joint committee on public schools last week that the Start Strong testing was one of the less painful and even a useful part in what has been a tumultuous start of the school year.
“Many of our members will tell you that administering a standardized test to students who have just returned to school after their pandemic experience was difficult for both students and staff, even though the assessment was a shortened one,” said Karen Bingert, executive director of the New Jersey Principal and Supervisors Association.
“Many students had not yet readjusted to the routines of a school day, let alone the taking of a standardized test,” she said. “However, our members were surprised and pleased with the quick and useful data this assessment has provided to them as the learning year gets underway.”
Those long advocating for more assessment of student performance — especially after a year when most students were left without access to in-person education — said the assessments were an important step.
“There is a benefit in measuring where these kids are,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, an advocacy group pressing for more assessments of where students and schools stand. “We shouldn’t let this crisis go to waste.”
In a six-figure public campaign, the group has gone so far as to develop its own series of online and other resources for families concerned about their children falling behind.
‘If we don’t go through a methodical process, we won’t know what has happened to these children.’
“If we don’t go through a methodical process, we won’t know what has happened to these children,” Morgan said.
But that praise was hardly across the board. The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said there were more than a few glitches in the tests’ administration.
For instance, some districts were reported to have tested students on subject matter they had only started to learn.
“Implementation has been rough,” said Chrissi Miles, the NJEA’s associate director for professional development and herself a former high school English teacher.
Miles described Algebra II testing in some districts for students who had only just started the class this year. “There was definitely a communication breakdown there,” she said.
“It’s going to completely skew results,” Miles continued, “and play into the narrative of learning loss, when it’s really just learning that hasn’t happened yet.”
The value of testing data
But that’s where the question arrives at what exactly will come of the results. Miles and others pointed out the reports to parents and teachers are pretty general, only saying whether a student “needs support,” “strong support” or is at grade level. Most if not all districts conduct their own assessments that already tell them that, they said.
“Does it move the needle?” Miles said. “It was one more thing that teachers had to do, and it really doesn’t move instruction . . . It didn’t really tell [educators] anything they didn’t already know.”
Still, some of those who advocated for the additional testing said the true value will come in how the results are disseminated and analyzed. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, has long pushed for the assessments and the data they provide to help drive additional programs and supports in districts in the pandemic’s aftermath.
In an interview Monday, she was holding out hope that will happen.
“The assessments will be valuable only if they are used to create better data,” she said. “If they are going to be provided to teachers and parents, of course they make sense. . . But if we are going to just collect the data and stare at it and not guide districts, then it’s a waste of time.”