Op-Ed: Tools to tackle learning gaps must be measured against student progress

Patricia Morgan | February 26, 2021 | Education, Opinion
We must continually collect and analyze student achievement data to ensure we are truly closing learning and achievement gaps for all students across the state
Patricia Morgan

In recent days, Gov. Phil Murphy and acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan announced a comprehensive plan called “The Road Forward,” an initiative intended to mitigate challenges for students, educators and school districts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the centerpiece of this plan, the state is disbursing about $1.2 billion in new federal stimulus resources to districts to address learning gaps. This is a significant infusion of funding that can be used in impactful ways to substantially help students. It is imperative that the state not only provide meaningful guidance on the best and most effective ways to deploy these funds but also be committed to supporting ongoing measurement of student academic progress.

Approximately $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funding will be going directly to districts and charters to address challenges arising in each of their communities. It will be extremely beneficial for the state and groups like JerseyCAN and others to identify district, charter and Renaissance schools that use these funds in highly effective and innovative ways as it will help other districts to replicate best practices. To this end, we applaud the state’s creation of a new website that will act as a clearinghouse for district innovation and plans for the new stimulus funds they are receiving.  However, with these funds, comes the responsibility to deploy them effectively and in a time-sensitive manner to address students’ urgent needs.

In addition to the funds flowing directly to districts and charters, the governor is using the bulk of the funds the state set aside in the most recent federal stimulus bill for K-12 education for two new state grants. A $75 million Learning Acceleration Grant, which will be used to support research-based academic enrichment activities and strategies to support the broader learning ecosystem, and a $30 million grant, which will be used to assist districts in building a tiered, sustainable intervention model of comprehensive mental health supports and services. It is encouraging to see that these new grants can be used to fund many of the proven, research-based solutions that JerseyCAN and a number of advocates have been calling for in recent weeks, including one-on-one intensive tutoring and summer learning academies.

These efforts are notable steps in the right direction. Now, they must be accompanied by reliable and consistent measures that will identify students’ learning gaps and progress if we want to help students fully recover lost ground. While New Jersey indicated that it intends to request a waiver from the federal government to opt out of statewide summative assessments, it appears that USDE may require states to administer assessments but with a range of available flexibilities. Given those flexibilities, developing and implementing other measures of students’ needs and progress are more important than ever before and must not be overlooked. This is critical for two reasons.

First, the state already had deep achievement gaps before the pandemic hit. While we are said to be the top in the nation for education, in 2019, only 55% of third graders met expectations in math and only 50% of third graders met expectations in English Language Arts (ELA) on our statewide assessments. The fact that only half of our students are on grade level is extremely troubling, but a more disturbing nuance is that even fewer students of color were on grade level — only 40% of Hispanic and 35% of Black students met expectations in math and only 36% of Hispanic and 33% of Black students met expectations in ELA. Again, these numbers were pre-pandemic. It is undoubtable that the number of students who are not on grade level will grow due to the pandemic, particularly when we consider that most low-income urban students in our state have been learning in fully remote settings for nearly a year. Given that about half of our students in New Jersey were already behind, it is not an exaggeration to say that lost classroom time will have life-altering consequences.

Second, even with the administration of a statewide assessment in 2021, we will not have a picture of student growth — whether our students statewide are closing learning gaps — until spring 2022. Consequently, we will need meaningful interim measurements to shed light on whether new interventions are getting our students back on track. Notably, the state has announced the availability of two promising assessments to gauge student performance — the continued use of the Start Strong diagnostic assessment in fall 2021 and the introduction of a Kindergarten Readiness tool.

Gov. Murphy and his team have always indicated that data will drive decision-making when it comes to the pandemic, and now the education community must do the same when it comes to our education recovery. We must continually assess, collect and analyze student achievement data to ensure that we are truly closing learning and achievement gaps for all of our students across the state. If we do not do this — or worse yet are too scared to be honest about what data tells us about our learning gaps — we risk an entire generation of students never being able to reach their full potential.