Op-Ed: Letter to the US education secretary

Leaders of three New Jersey education organizations press for a waiver for New Jersey from this spring’s federally mandated standardized testing
Richard Bozza, Patricia Wright (center), and Marie Blistan

Dear Secretary Cardona,

Along with millions of our fellow Americans, we watched last Thursday night as President Joe Biden addressed the nation after Congress passed the American Rescue Plan. That historic law will provide much-needed resources to help our schools close gaps and correct deficiencies brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to build for and invest in a brighter post-pandemic future for our students.

We share President Biden’s optimism that better days are ahead for everyone, but also his caution that we must stay the course in order to reach them. If we begin to celebrate victory too soon, we could see it slip through our fingers. So we must continue to do all the things that will help us get to this hopefully brighter summer: get vaccinated in large numbers (an opportunity educators are grateful finally to have), continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and careful hygiene, and resist the urge to gather in large groups before we are fully vaccinated. Celebrate too soon, and we might end up with nothing to celebrate at all.

It is in that spirit of both optimism and realistic caution that we write to you in support of New Jersey’s application for a waiver from this spring’s federally mandated standardized testing.

We do not need to tell you that this has been a year like no other for educators, students and families across America. Yet in New Jersey, we are beginning to see more and more hopeful signs. Every week, as case numbers fall and community spread decreases, we are seeing additional districts able to reopen their doors for at least some type of in-person instruction. While not every district is yet able to provide the level of safety required to do that, in community after community, educators and administrators are working hand-in-hand to get us closer to that day and to keep students engaged and learning until it arrives.

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that every one of the 1.4 million public school students in New Jersey now has access to a laptop or digital device for online learning, allowing them to learn safely and effectively whether their instruction is offered remotely, in person or in some combination of both of those.

And across the state, educators are flocking to sign up for and receive long-awaited vaccinations, another key step in making our entire school community — and by extension the families and communities our students go home to — safer.

With all of those things moving in a promising direction after so many months of uncertainty and struggle, we share President Biden’s optimism that we may have even more than usual to celebrate on the Fourth of July this year.

But it is not July yet. Educators are not all vaccinated yet. Deficiencies in school HVAC and other systems means schools are not all safe to reopen for in-person learning yet. We aren’t back to normal yet.

And that is why it would be a tragic mistake to impose federally mandated standardized testing on our students this spring, as we are all focused on emerging from this pandemic. It is not possible, under the conditions that still exist, to administer those tests in a way that yields any valid, reliable or useful data. There is no time in this already disrupted school year for standardized tests that do not result in sufficient data to drive instruction in the summer and through next year.

New Jersey’s waiver appropriately focuses on the use of on-going formative assessment data that will truly support the development of a robust, tiered system of intervention. When we are doing everything we can every day to make up for what was unquestionably lost over the last twelve difficult months, interrupting that work to administer summative tests will be just another loss for our students, and there have already been too many losses.

The losses are real, and they go beyond academic concerns. Our students have lost a portion of their childhood. They have lost access to activities and sports that engaged them. They have lost the opportunity for face-to-face instruction, small-group work around a table and the sort of peer-to-peer interaction that usually takes place both inside and outside the classroom. A tragic number of them have also lost family or other loved ones, or have seen their families struggle to make it through the last year economically and emotionally.

We don’t need a test to tell us that there has been loss. What we need is time: time to interact with them, to teach them, to help them, to support them, to nurture their social and emotional well-being as well as their academic progress. Tests this spring will be stressful for many of our students. But even those who would not be harmed emotionally by another stress this year will be harmed academically by having their learning time interrupted just as we are all beginning to find our stride and pick up the momentum we need to carry us through to summer and into next year.

In New Jersey, many of our high-poverty districts remain closed. Administering a standardized test to these students, given the wide range of variables in the testing environment, will only serve to widen the already existing equity gap. Focusing on district and classroom assessments will provide the needed information to provide the appropriate extended learning opportunities this summer and fall.

So we ask you, on behalf of New Jersey’s administrators, teachers and educational support professionals: honor New Jersey’s request for a waiver. Let us gather the data we need to help our students and to plan for next year without breaking our students’ stride again this year.

Our schools are consistently rated the best in the nation because of our dedication to our students. This last year has only redoubled that commitment in all of us.

Please, give us the flexibility to meet our students’ needs and make it through this pandemic as strong and successful as possible.

Sincerely,

Marie Blistan, President, New Jersey Education Association

Richard Bozza, Executive Director, New Jersey Association of School Administrators

Patricia Wright, Executive Director, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association

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