NJ education leaders pushing for federal waiver of school testing requirements

‘At this time, the testing will not meet the needs of anyone, not the least of all the kids,’ NJEA president says

Not even a pandemic has slowed the debate over state standardized testing in New Jersey, and in fact it may have only heightened it.

It was most recently touched off when the Murphy administration last week quietly sent out a memo to districts to continue to prepare for this spring’s Student Learning Assessments (SLA) testing, even if it has to be done remotely due to the pandemic.

The annual testing had been suspended last spring due to the shuttering of all schools, but the state Department of Education last week said it was proceeding with the testing for this year, starting in March, in the absence of the federal government permitting otherwise.

Yet later in the week, the caveat in that decision got bigger, as the federal Department of Education provided new guidance on what states could request around the accountability piece of the testing. The directive did not include waivers for the testing itself, but it did invite alternatives to how the testing is used. A Feb. 1 deadline for applications was extended to an undetermined date, and several states — including New York and Michigan — have already said they will seek the waiver for the testing as a whole.

And today, leaders of three of the state’s top education groups got on a call with Acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan to implore her to seek that waiver from the federal government, saying this is no time to add a state test to the mix when districts are scrambling to meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs.

“We were very adamant,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union and an otherwise-close ally of Gov. Phil Murphy.

“At this time, the testing will not meet the needs of anyone, not the least of all the kids,” Blistan said she told the commissioner.

Murphy stands by earlier federal guidelines

The Murphy administration has so far remained coy on the topic, standing by its earlier statements that it was following the federal requirements as it knows them. In its memo to districts last Tuesday, department officials said that schools should prepare for online language arts and math testing in grades 3-8, as well as subject tests in high school.

“At this time, the United States Department of Education has not indicated that there will be any form of waiver of states’ statewide assessment obligations for the 2020-2021 school year,” wrote Lisa Gleason, the state’s assistant commissioner for academics and student performance, in the memo to districts.

A spokesman for the commission reiterated that position today. “The NJDOE continues to monitor developments, but we’re not aware of any change in position from the U.S. Department of Education, which has indicated that states should not anticipate a waiver from statewide assessment obligations for the 2020-2021 school year,” said Mike Yaple, the department’s communications director.

No doubt, there has been significant support for continuing the assessments as well, or at least having some measures in place to determine where learning delays have taken place over the last 10 months.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education commission, has been the most outspoken in demanding at least some accountability from districts and the state, and she has pressed a bill that would demand the state put in place adequate monitoring.

Yet Murphy has been outspoken on his aversion to state standardized testing, starting back in his gubernatorial campaign when he said he’d end the former PARCC testing immediately once he took office.

It took a bit longer to fulfill the promise, but his administration did so and also has watered down the weight of the testing ever since. Last month, he suspended any use of state testing in student graduation requirements during the pandemic.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the state’s superintendents association who joined today’s call with the commissioner, said he was besieged with emails after the state first sent out its memo last week for districts to move ahead with testing plans.

“Nobody believes this is the right path to take,” Bozza said today following the call. “The commissioner clearly understood the issue and was getting lots of calls, too.”

Data on students’ instructional needs

Bozza said the group’s argument — and that of a growing list of local superintendents — is that the districts already collect considerable data on students that can be used to pinpoint needs in the face of the pandemic and the loss of instruction time, be it remote or in-person.

Not every district has all the diagnostic tools in place, Bozza acknowledged, but he said they can be assisted. “And many districts do have an awful lot of data — let us find ways to report that rather than adding an additional assessment,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its initial post to clarify the federal department’s directive last week.