Will COVID-19 cancel N.J.’s statewide student evaluations this spring?

Education commissioner-elect Angelica Allen-McMillan and Gov. Phil Murphy (NJ Spotlight)

Education commissioner-elect Angelica Allen-McMillan and Gov. Phil Murphy (NJ Spotlight)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Among the many questions facing New Jersey public schools in this pandemic year: What’s going to happen to statewide student testing?

Hotly debated even in the best of times, the state’s testing program — Student Learning Assessments — was suspended last spring at the height of the first COVID-19 outbreak. Now the state just announced that this fall’s limited administration of the student evaluations has been scratched as well.

But with the vast majority of schools relying on at least some remote learning, questions have surfaced about what will happen this spring in the main testing period, as fears rise that students are regressing academically.

Spring testing on schedule?

So far, the state Department of Education says the exams will take place in an expanded testing window from March to June. And one influential lawmaker has called for the state to ensure at least some assessments take place to gauge whether students are remaining on track.

But New Jersey’s dominant teachers union has weighed in against testing this spring, saying the year is “too chaotic and disrupted for those tests to provide useful information.”

And a new wild card has been dealt to educators in New Jersey and elsewhere: Will President-elect Joe Biden and his administration change up federal policy that has been unwavering in requiring testing?

New commissioner on board

There are other unknowns, including a new state education commissioner and a governor running for reelection in 2021 who vowed four years ago to reduce the burdens of school testing.

A spokesman for commissioner-elect Angelica Allen-McMillan said in an email this week that the state is sticking to its plans for a spring administration and wouldn’t venture a guess on what may happen with federal policy.

“We can only proceed under the current direction that has been provided by the U.S. Department of Education,” said spokesman Michael Yaple. “Beyond that, we wouldn’t speculate on scenarios.”

A troubled legacy

Under a variety of acronyms from EWT to NJASK to PARCC, New Jersey’s annual state testing in language arts and math has been a source of debate for decades, launching legislation for and against — and lawsuits, mostly against. For a couple of years, there was even a parent opt-out movement that saw tens of thousands of children sit out the exams.

But the pandemic made the issue moot, with schools shut down in the spring during the same months the state’s online exams were to be given. With little fanfare — and the feds’ permission — the statewide tests were not given for the first time ever.

This school year has proven to be a trickier — and more public — balancing act, with parties already starting to line up on each side. The state’s guidance to school districts went out last week and provided a detailed roadmap and schedule for the spring’s assessments.

Assistant Commissioner Diana Pasculli, who oversees the state’s assessment program, wrote that the department “recognizes the complexity of the circumstances in schools across the state” and was in conversations with the federal government and others about the assessments.

“The NJDOE will continue to engage with (the federal department), assessment experts and the Council of Chief State School Officers on the national issue of state assessments and will keep school administrators and educators apprised of any new information,” she wrote last week.

Nevertheless, she said, testing was now scheduled for anytime between March 15 and June 11 for elementary and middle schools and the first year of high school. “The NJDOE reminds districts that for the 2021 NJSLA administration, NJSLA assessments in ELA and math will be administered to students in grades 3 – 9,” the guidance read.

Are students ‘unlearning’?

Some advocates have said it’s a good step, at least for now, as fears of learning loss are growing.

“We think at a minimum, we have to see some diagnostic tools,” said Janellen Duffy, a senior adviser to JerseyCAN, one group that has pressed for greater performance and accountability measures. “I know a lot of schools are doing it on their own, but it’s a real patchwork.”

JerseyCAN and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation last week released a survey of parents in the state to get their impressions of the school year so far, finding that just a quarter said their districts were doing enough to measure if students were staying on grade level. On another question, many parents said that learning loss was as much of a concern as the virus itself.

“We know the difficulties, but to the extent (the assessments) can be done, it should continue,” said Duffy, who served as education adviser under former Gov. Jon Corzine. “And parents need to be told. That is really inconsistent across districts.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the chair of the Senate’s education committee, has pressed for the state to maintain its assessments, arguing that too many students fall behind without the tracking.

Last week, she announced a bill that would demand the Murphy administration conduct a study of potential learning loss over the past eight months, including at least some statewide assessment measures.

“More than ever, it is abundantly clear there is a need for real-time data on where our children stand academically,” Ruiz (D-Essex) said in announcing the bill.

A wider digital divide?

“If we are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap, we must acknowledge there was a divide pre-COVID; we must assess to see where we are now, in the midst of the pandemic, and we must invest post-COVID to ensure that gap does not continue to grow the way it has over the past eight months.”

But others aren’t sure how that can take place, and a spokesman for the statewide teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said last night the state should step back from a statewide assessment.

“It will introduce a level of stress and confusion that is not needed this year,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director. “And you have to add on the logistical details of how it would be conducted.”

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