What’s behind us and what’s before us

By Kaitlyn Dunphy, Esq. and Dr. Christine Miles

Research has shown that an overemphasis on standardized testing is not beneficial for students or their learning. This is in the best of times. In current times, over-testing would only add unnecessary stress to an already stressful year, without seeing a return in terms of either assessing or addressing student needs. That is why NJEA is pleased its educators will have more time this spring to focus on providing instruction, services, social-emotional supports and the types of informal assessment that occur every day.

Earlier this year, the state decided to waive the exit-testing requirement for graduating seniors who had not already completed it, as well as delay the typical testing windows. In the meantime, NJEA and our members continued advocacy efforts with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), legislators, our fellow public-sector education unions and other stakeholders in support of submitting an application to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) to waive the spring assessment required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

In large part due to the advocacy of our members, New Jersey announced on Feb. 19, that it would be seeking a waiver from USDOE. Members wrote  over 15,000 letters in support of the waiver application, urging the federal government to grant that request. NJEA also submitted a letter in support of that application to USDOE and advocated with members of the state and federal legislatures.

On April 6, the USDOE issued a response to New Jersey’s waiver request indicating that the state did not need a waiver in order to forge ahead with the state’s assessment plan. As a result, most of the usual spring assessments were cancelled, with a few exceptions. The New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA, formerly named PARCC) has been cancelled for the 2020-21 school year and will be replaced by the Start Strong Assessment to be administered in fall 2021. However, the Dynamic Learning Map (DLM) for our students with the most significant disabilities and the ACCESS for English Language Learners have continued to take place, in person, this spring. There are no penalties for students, educators and districts when families choose to opt out of the DLM and ACCESS assessments.

The cancellation of the NJSLA this spring is a significant benefit for students, parents, and educators. Districts did not need to scramble to collect, disinfect and prepare all of the currently deployed devices for testing. Students and educators have minimally gained 5.5 to 10 hours of instructional time to dedicate to attending to students’ just-in-time needs. Rote “test-prep” that regularly eats up a significant portion of time throughout districts up and down the state is now being dedicated to identifying and supporting student academic, social, emotional, health and safety needs.

In place of the typical spring assessments, schools will take on much less time-consuming and labor-intensive assessments called “Start Strong” in the fall. The Start Strong assessments are derived from current NJSLA items. They can be administered in 45-60 minutes per subject area (English/language arts, mathematics, science), representing a significant decrease in the time required to administer the assessments.

In addition, results from the assessment are immediate; educators and districts will be able to access and utilize the data as soon as students conclude the assessment. This is a significant shift from the NJSLA, which historically requires more than six months following the assessment administration for results to be usable. The Start Strong assessment administration will be available to districts from Sept. 13, 2021 through Oct. 22, 2021.

Finally, in light of the USDOE’s response to NJDOE’s assessment waiver request, no waiver is needed for this plan. While a federal requirement for statewide standardized assessment remains in place, this paves the way for the state to shift away from NJSLA and toward Start Strong beyond the fall of 2021.

Kaitlyn Dunphy is an associate director of NJEA Legal Services and Member Rights in the NJEA Executive Office. She can be reached at kdunphy@njea.org.

Dr. Christine Miles is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. She can be reached at cmiles@njea.org.

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