The state’s acting education commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan went for the first time before the Senate budget committee on Thursday, in what is an annual rite of passage for commissioners to defend the governor’s state budget proposal.
But it was hardly just dollars and cents that were on lawmakers’ minds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on schooling this past year, and Allen-McMillan faced questions on topics rarely touched on before in these hearings, including learning loss and technology gaps.
But the familiar, ever-controversial topic of New Jersey’s standardized testing was much in evidence, albeit with a pandemic-driven twist. New federal guidance released this week appears to allow the state exams to be suspended this spring, as the Murphy administration requested.
Under questioning from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, however, Allen-McMillan acknowledged the matter is not quite settled; conversations are continuing with the federal government.
At issue, she said, is whether the federal Department of Education fully understood the extent of the state testing planned for the fall, an abbreviated exam called Start Strong that is a fraction of the duration of the usual spring NJ State Learning Assessment (NJSLA) and only indicate whether students need extra support.
“We are working to make sure the clarity exists (with the federal government),” said the commissioner.
Weak start for Start Strong
The Start Strong assessment was administered on a voluntary basis in the fall, but only 10% of districts took part. The state’s plan is to make it mandatory this fall, and then restart the NJSLA in the spring of 2022.
Ruiz has been blunt that the loss of a comprehensive assessment like the NJSLA — for the second spring in a row — will only exacerbate the learning damage inflicted on students by the pandemic.
“I just want to make sure that they are aware that Start Strong is not a summative assessment (like the NJSLA),” said Ruiz.
“Start Strong still needs to be tweaked if it is going to be a summative assessment,” Ruiz continued. “The reporting measurement itself doesn’t match up at all … or qualify for the federal standards nor a standard that I like.”
Allen-McMillan said she thought Start Strong would be improved to make the tests more comprehensive and more closely aligned with the SLA, although she did not go into detail about how that would take place.
“We are working with our vendor now to understand how to clarify and where there can be greater alignment if possible between Start Strong and the NJSLA,” the commissioner said.
Testing was not the only issue raised by the Senate budget committee. Some of those present did focus on Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget plans for the department and the state’s public schools.
In that budget, Murphy has proposed a $623 million increase in direct state aid to schools, including $50 million more for expanded preschool. But several lawmakers focused on the $193 million that will be cut from close to 200 districts that have been classified under the current formula as being “overaided.”
“A third of districts are getting decreases,” said state Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex). “This is a very extraordinary year, we have heard about learning loss, we have heard about getting kids back in school … Let’s use some of that money so that no district will have a loss.”
Allen-McMillan highlighted that the budget does include an additional $50 million in stabilization aid to help offset cuts, but in what appeared a slight break from the administration’s past positions, she lent a sympathetic ear to districts losing aid, especially in what is such an unusual year.
“We are very sensitive to that,” she said in response. “While we are currently following the funding formula, it does appear to adversely affect several communities.”
Still, a few minutes later, the commissioner said the department would work with districts to help find savings and efficiencies that could offset the financial hit.
“They have our sympathy, and we are willing to come out and work with them,” she said. “While it’s painful, we are here and willing to walk alongside them.”