This article was reprinted from NJ Spotlight, Saturday January 8, 2022; written by NJ Spotlight founding editor John Mooney
Almost two years after the pandemic first jolted New Jersey’s public schools in profound ways, the first statewide data on the extent of the damage is starting to be made public.
And needless to say, it’s not pretty — nor all that surprising.
The state Department of Education on Wednesday released a trove of data culled from both the state’s assessment tests administered in the fall, as well as those derived by local districts through their own classroom measures.
By and large, the presentation before the State Board of Education showed anywhere from a third to half of students fell short of grade-level expectations for the fall — and the numbers were even starker in some racial and income groups.
In the state’s “Start Strong” assessments administered in the fall, the biggest difficulties were seen in younger grades, and especially in math, according to the results detailed Wednesday. But even local districts’ own assessments showed only 64% of all students at expected grade-level proficiency in language arts, and that percentage fell below 50% among Black, Hispanic, and low-income groups.
Of course, disparities are not new for New Jersey’s public-education system, and for all the numbers, officials warned against making too many judgments.
There is little context with which to compare the results, they said, especially with the state’s latest assessments and the data collection significantly altered from previous years.
Adding to the complications, the Start Strong assessment was vastly pared down to get them completed quickly in the fall. It also used a three-level rubric to gauge each student, compared to five different levels on the state’s separate, more comprehensive Student Learning Assessments (NJSLA), which had been paused a year.
“This is a first glimpse,” said Kathy Goldenberg, the State Board’s president. “It’s one point in time, but an important point in time.”
These numbers do matter in starting to measure what many term the expected “learning loss” — or what one department official called “unfinished learning” — from a pandemic that shuttered schools for months and relegated instruction to Zoom calls and Chromebooks.
“Nothing is surprising,” Ronald Butcher, the State Board’s longest-serving member, said afterward. “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about the results, but the obstacles [from the pandemic] have been unbelievable.”
The results loomed large over the State Board’s separate discussion Wednesday over where to set the passing — or “cut” — scores for the state’s revised high-school graduation test, to be administered for the first time this coming spring to 11th graders.
The proposed cut score has been a hot topic before the board, with some members saying it’s not high enough and others saying it’s appropriate for a first-time test, especially in this extraordinary time.
And looking at the state’s initial results in the areas to be tested — 10th grade language arts, Algebra I and geometry — there will surely be a sizable share of students struggling to meet them.
The board put off a final decision until next month, asking to amend the resolution to give them more authority to review the cut scores in the years to come.
Federal money available
Overall, none of these numbers should be surprising to districts, with the results from the state made available at least a month ago and their own assessments in hand to more precisely point out the needs.
And in that time, literally billions of dollars for federally funded measures are also now available to start addressing the education gaps. As a whole, the state’s schools received $4.3 billion in federal aid, 90% sent to the districts directly to apply to an array of programs — instructional and not. Mental-health supports are a common need for districts applying for the state’s share of the funds, officials said.
There will be plenty more discussion and debate to come, too. Officials say the interim Start Strong assessments would continue — as will the restart to the state’s usual Student Learning Assessment assessments this spring. As opposed to the Start Strong’s abbreviated test, the NJSLA spans several days and provides far more detailed data that can be directly compared to previous years.
And state legislative leaders are expected to take up the issue as well, starting Thursday when the Senate Education Committee plans its own hearing to discuss schools’ challenges and reactions to the pandemic as a whole. The assessment results are sure to come up.
“I am heartbroken, disappointed and outraged,” state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the outgoing chair of the committee who will become the new Senate Majority Leader, said Wednesday in an interview. “But the truth is these are numbers we have seen before.
“I don’t want numbers anymore,” she said. “What I want is what are we doing about it.”