Statewide standardized tests hinder educational equity

By Dr. Christine Miles

Last spring, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) sought a federal waiver to suspend the statewide assessment system mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In addition, New Jersey’s antiquated graduation testing requirement for the Class of 2020 was waived for the 13,000 graduating seniors who had yet to fulfill it.

But this year, outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refuses to grant U.S. Education Department (USDE) assessment waivers to states and the NJDOE is forging ahead with the exit-testing requirement for the Class of 2021. Educators, parents and students, however, patiently await support and relief from the Biden administration as districts continue to adjust to shifting internal and external conditions and cope with ongoing misfortunes, building closures, and trauma.

Time with students is supremely precious. New Jersey students across grades 3-11 endure a minimum of 63.5 hours of statewide standardized assessment each school year—more time than any other state in the nation. Administering a statewide standardized assessment under the current circumstances will have an increasingly negative impact on the already strained time available for effective teaching and learning. And, to what end? Statewide standardized assessment data during a pandemic will be neither valid, reliable, nor useful.

Testing proponents claim that statewide standardized assessment will ensure equity in this chaotic time by revealing “learning losses.” This is educational gaslighting at its finest. The New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA) will fail to illuminate academic backsliding as this is not what the assessment was designed for. How will a test suddenly be able to do what it has historically never been able to do?

Standardized assessments do not enhance equity; they reinforce inequity. In an equal system, every community benefits from the same supports, while in an equitable system, every community is provided with the support needed to be successful. The true inequities lie in the systemic under-resourcing of schools in various communities throughout New Jersey. 

While the digital divide is slowly closing, more work needs to be done to ensure universal high-speed connectivity and access to appropriate devices. As we anticipate that in-person teaching and learning will experience ongoing disruptions leading up to and during the statewide assessment window, it will be exceedingly difficult to put the required testing structures and security measures in place. Access to alternate pathways to graduation has already been widely disrupted, raising significant equity concerns. School and testing-site closures eliminate the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Accuplacer and ASVAB pathways for seniors who have yet to fulfill their exit-testing requirement.

At the time of writing, the state plans to implement the portfolio process, an alternate pathway to graduation offered during senior year, beginning in this month. This process has disproportionately been used as a graduation pathway by historically marginalized communities, including low-income students, English language learners (ELL), and students with disabilities. In any given year, the portfolio process requires substantial facilitation and one-on-one support from school staff. During the ongoing pandemic, this requirement is inappropriate, unethical, and targets under-resourced communities.

The USDE and NJDOE should instead encourage actions that ensure our students, educators, and communities not only survive and recover, but thrive—academically, physically, and emotionally—following the disruption and trauma of COVID-19:

    We have the opportunity to assess what students need through authentic, locally determined and curriculum-embedded formative assessments.

    We can supply our students with targeted and actionable feedback specific to their individual needs.

    We can look to the future by emphasizing acceleration as opposed to remediation strategies, which have been proven to diminish student achievement.

    We have the chance to recover and rebuild mental health through a commitment to trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning strategies.

    We have the obligation to flood our schools with the resources necessary to support health, mental health, and social services.

As we look to the future let us leave behind what has already failed us in the past, and instead focus on what will work in the best interests of our students’ needs.

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

A recent history of assessment

March 9 – Gov. Murphy declares public health emergency

March 18 – Gov. Murphy orders all school buildings to close for in-person instruction

March 24 – NJDOE receives assessment waiver from USDE; Gov. Murphy announces cancellation of statewide assessment system for spring 2020

April 7 – Gov. Murphy waives exit-testing requirement for the Class of 2020

Aug. 13 – Gov. Murphy authorizes schools to open for in-person instruction subject to health and safety protocols

Sept. 2020 – USDE Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sends letter to Council of Chief State School Officers announcing no statewide assessment waivers in 2020-21

Nov. 18 – NJDOE releases statewide assessment calendar for 2020-21

Nov. 25 – Federal government cancels the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)