The obsession with tests continues

By Dawn Howlen 

The first few days of school are magical. They bring new hopes and ambitions for a fantastic school year. Students and educators begin to build connections and relationships that will sustain them throughout the school year. In one of the schools where I taught, my administrator was adamant about using the first few weeks not to instruct but to learn about our students. Those weeks were crucial because they allowed me to build community within my classroom. This made all the difference as the year progressed and challenges arose.  

Last year, that community-building was interrupted by the Start Strong Assessment. As students gathered in my classroom, we reviewed all the necessary information and instructions, and they took the assessment. While the assessment is touted as a shorter version of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA), it elicits all the same emotions.  

Students were anxious, nervous and visibly dejected. I encouraged them and told them this assessment did not reflect who they were as a person but where they were academically at this moment in time. With that, they pressed on and finished the assessment. After all, they would only have to take the assessment once.  

To be clear, this was not the only assessment my students took as I collected data and began to get a complete picture of the children who would become “my kids” over the school year. The difference between the Start Strong assessment and the assessments I gave was that I could use the data from my assessments to modify and differentiate instruction for my students. Unfortunately, I never received the data from the Start Strong assessment. As a former literacy specialist, I know that a good data set is integral to the success of a student, their teacher and their school. Without it, there can be no real change. It’s like trying to build a plane without any instructions; it’s pointless.  

Fast forward to September 2022: Students and educators across New Jersey were met with the second mandatory administration of the Start Strong assessment. When the NJDOE released its assessment calendar for the 2022-2023 school year, I was shocked to see the Start Strong assessment on the schedule. After all, it was clear that the 2021 assessment would only be used to report data to the federal government since the NJSLA was not given during the spring of 2021.  

Herein lies the problem: The Start Strong was given four months after the NJSLA. As of Aug. 26, the NJSLA data from Spring 2022 has yet to be added to the NJDOE website, which is running very close to the date of the opening of the assessment window for the 2022 Start Strong of Aug. 31. To further complicate the situation, most schools in New Jersey begin after Labor Day, a week after the window opens, which puts those schools at a disadvantage.  

We see issues with the Start Strong assessment that could have quickly been addressed. For one, the window could have been more flexible. It would have allowed students, educators and school districts to settle into their rituals and routines before they were inundated with schoolwide assessments and assessment preparations. This small gesture would have taken some of the stress out of the start of the first “normal” school year since 2019.  

I imagine my former sixth-grade students settling into their new schools, making new friends and building lasting relationships with their teachers. I hope they remember that they are more than a test score and that the best way to start the school year is with a strong mind and spirit.  

Dawn Howlen is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. She can be reached at