State testing for student-learning gaps yet to get local buy-in

“Learning loss” is troubling byproduct of the pandemic, but educators and administrators haven’t rushed to be part of state’s assessments

Through all the tumult that the COVID-19 pandemic has created in New Jersey schools, a fundamental question remains about how much so-called learning loss or at least learning delay some students will suffer.

The Murphy administration has maintained that learning loss is a vital concern, and this week it laid out its program for schools to use a modified state assessment as a measure for themselves and families.

But thus far, at least, few schools are taking part.

Acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan and her staff presented to the State Board of Education the first of two reports on the department’s “Start Strong” assessments, an optional battery of tests that began in September to measure math, language arts and science skills during the pandemic.

The presentation last week was largely an overview of the program so far, and officials said they would be returning to the board in February with some of the critical performance data they’d gathered.

“This represents a starting point,” said Gilbert Gonzalez, the state’s director of assessment.

“The assessments provide a snapshot to how much supports are needed at the beginning of the school year,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting.

However, it appears the picture of that starting point will be limited, as the administration said just 10% of schools used the Start Strong assessment in the fall administration, representing about 9% of students.

The reasons for the low participation are still being analyzed by state officials. But they said local administrators have largely responded that they were doing their own assessments and were unable to do more amid all the other challenges of the pandemic.

“We were hopeful that more districts would participate, but the conditions for districts proved challenging,” said Lisa Gleason, the assistant commissioner for academics and student performance.

Assessments are made all the more difficult since the state itself has not done any student testing since 2019; Student Learning Assessments (SLA) — formerly known as PARCC — were suspended in the spring of 2020 due to the first wave of the pandemic. Questions have been raised about whether they will be administered in 2021.

The biggest question is whether the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden will be willing to waive the federal requirements for such testing, a decision it has yet to signal. Yet another is whether the Murphy administration will even request such a waiver, as there is considerable political pressure both for and against.

As of now, the state is still planning on administering the SLA in the spring, the department said, but it has also left open the possibility of seeking a waiver.

In the meantime, the Start Strong assessments are the state’s interim testing measure. And from the state’s presentation on Wednesday, the assessments appear a far cry from the full battery that have become the norm for districts for decades.

For one thing, they comprise a 45-minute to 60-minute test in each subject area, taken online like the SLA but due to remote instruction and other limitations, they can’t deliver any of the SLA’s extensive security and other reliability requirements.

But officials said they are not intended to measure district or school progress, but solely to provide a “snapshot” to schools and families about how their students are performing against grade-level expectations.

Each student who takes the test is given a report that lays out where he or she may need extra support and instruction, and where they may not.

“Emphasis is on the word ‘may,’” said Gonzalez, the assessment director, “as the assessment results are not meant to stand alone but are meant to be in the context of other local assessments.”

But the challenge appears to be getting districts to buy in, even with the state conducting more than two dozen information sessions.

In the fall administration, only about 88,000 students participated statewide, a small share of the 1.4 million enrolled.  And of about 800 districts, charter schools and special-education schools statewide, only 81 participated.

At the board meeting on Wednesday, members probed further about the low participation rates, and officials said they hoped with further outreach they would improve the numbers — and also determine if the interim assessments will even continue.

Gleason, the assistant commissioner, said the data drawn from the assessments is still coming in. “I think our next steps are getting feedback from the field and continuing to see if these assessments are a tool that will really continue to help support student readiness,” she said.