The Murphy administration this spring took the unprecedented step of gathering local schools’ own assessment data to get a snapshot of how the state’s students were doing during the pandemic.
By culling and analyzing data from the first half of the school year, the Department of Education sought to measure the extent of the potential damage to learning — so-called learning loss — over the course of the pandemic and the widespread shift to remote learning.
Last week, the department sent districts a report on the statewide results of that effort, and it left a worrying — and somewhat confusing — picture as districts close out the school year and prepare for the next.
The report — Interim Assessment Data Collection — broke down results across three grade-level categories. It said at least a third of the students were “below-grade level” in language arts and math, as measured by the state. Science was only a little better.
Worries about gaps between students
But the biggest concerns came in the gaps between student groups, with more than 50% of Black and Latinx students scoring below grade level.
This is where the questions come in, however, especially over how much to be guided by just one data release and what the state and schools should do next with the information.
One prominent lawmaker renewed calls for requiring districts to provide summer schools and accelerated instruction. She said the nearly $2.5 billion in additional federal aid to New Jersey schools provides plenty of resources.
“The data is clear. It’s there in front of us,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the state Senate education committee, who was among the first to press for the extra data collection. “Knowing this is a fact facing our students, the department needs to step up and take action.”
Such a project was never conducted before by the state, and there really are no other years or time frames to compare findings to. It was only conducted as an alternative to giving the state’s more-extensive tests, the Student Learning Assessments, which have now been suspended for two years and will return in 2022.
Wide variety of approaches
And how districts responded and the assessments they used varied widely, too. Some of these assessments — whether quick in-class quizzes or a quick pull-out – are well-known and standardized. But others were customized to schools and teachers.
Even if compared with the SLA or other, previous state testing, it’s not a precise exercise. Anywhere from 40% to 70% of students “meet expectations” in the state’s SLA tests, depending on the test and grade, but those are multiday exams and measure students across five levels, not three.
In this report, the department was quick to warn districts from making too many judgments or comparisons based on this one collection of data.
Separately, the state conducted a voluntary exam last fall that found about a third of the tested students fell into the category of “strong support may be needed.” That exam, which had a different purpose and did not address grade level, is going to be required of districts in the fall.
“The Department would discourage comparisons between the interim assessment data described above and data regarding student performance on previous administrations of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment or other statewide assessments,” read the June 2 report from assistant commissioner Lisa Gleason.
“Statewide assessments serve a different purpose and are administered under different conditions than local interim assessments,” it said. “Comparisons between these data sets would not yield meaningful takeaways regarding trends in student learning over time.”
Subdued discussion thus far
There hasn’t been much public discussion of the results since the report was released with little notice as part of a package of memos sent to districts. The department is slated to make a presentation to the State Board of Education next week.
But those who had seen report said it reinforces gaps and needs that have long been documented in schools, pandemic or not, and this is another data point.
“This is a piece of data in the context of our conversations that districts were already using and discussing,” said Deborah Bradley, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
“We knew that assessments given during this crisis would identify individual learning gaps that may have been caused for a myriad of reasons related to the pandemic — breaks in learning, social-emotional issues, not tuning in virtually,” she wrote in an email. “These district-based assessments show a point in time like any assessment.”
The head of the state’s superintendents group said there were limits to what one can read into the first-time report.
“We haven’t before classified students on state assessments as to perceived grade level status,” said Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. ”The data was collected in part to satisfy the application to waive spring assessments. There is no comparability throughout the state to make the comparison a valid one.”
Ruiz nevertheless said she hopes the report will sound an alarm for the state to take a more proactive role in addressing the real-life challenges facing districts and students coming out of the pandemic.
She has sponsored a bill in the Senate to require summer and other accelerated programs be offered, but it has stalled so far under objections from districts. The administration has also been hesitant in mandating programs, saying they should be left to districts.
“This reinforces what I was talking about since last March, and even before that,” Ruiz said. “We have disparate percentages of African American, language arts and English-language learners who are below grade level.”
“There has to be a plan to address this,” she said.