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Faced with persistent worries that students may see a delay in their academic progress or a loss in learning this COVID-19-damaged school year, the Murphy administration is asking local districts to start submitting their existing data to determine how students are doing so far.
The state Department of Education informed districts in a memo Thursday to begin compiling and submitting student performance data drawn from classroom assessments, tests and other exams given over the winter to give a snapshot of how students are faring academically.
Using results collected up until mid-February, the interim data will mark students at, above or below grade level in language arts, math and science, the guidance said. The administration said that performance grading is aimed to give the state a detailed view of whether and where students have regressed during the pandemic.
“As part of this initiative, the NJDOE remains committed to ensuring that districts are measuring how students are performing on grade and subject level standards,” read the memo from Lisa Gleason, the state’s assistant commissioner for academics and student performance.
The worry about so-called learning loss has raged across the country during the pandemic and, in New Jersey, sparked intense debate on not just what is needed to make up for any damage but how to measure it in the first place.
A week ago, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a multi-pronged plan — called The Road Forward — for addressing school needs both now and into the next year, including more than $1 billion in federal aid for added programs and the use of local data to mark where students now stand.
Federal waiver for standardized testing?
In a normal year, the state’s standardized Student Learning Assessment (SLA) would be that measure. But as it did successfully last year, the Murphy administration is seeking a waiver from the federal government from having to give the state test, maintaining it would be disruptive to an already fragile year and provide little useful information.
Signals from Washington, D.C., have been fluid on whether such a request will be accepted. The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance of its own last week, saying Washington would give states wide flexibility on what those assessments could look like and when they are given, including even in the summer or fall.
But the federal Department of Education’s letter also left open the possibility of waivers from states having to give the tests altogether, offering some hope to states like New Jersey seeking the exemption.
Many of New Jersey’s largest school advocacy groups have supported the Murphy administration’s pursuit of the federal waiver, saying the local data should suffice and would be far easier on districts than the multiple days of standardized testing, not to mention the complexities of at-home test-taking for many students.
The state’s request to Washington is expected to go out this coming week, after the proposal goes through a required public comment period.
Patricia Wright, executive director of the state’s principals and supervisors association, has been part of the discussions with the state department and said she supported the department’s plans. She said the local data collection sheds valuable light on student performance, especially if the state’s waiver request is approved. And in case it is not, she said, it will give the state more leeway.
“It’s a smart move,” Wright said. “If anything, it buys time. If the waiver isn’t approved, the [state] testing would have to be moved either way.”
Science achievement may be harder to measure
Still, Wright said the state’s request will come with its own administrative lift for schools and districts, even if the assessments have already been given. Such classroom quizzes are common in reading, writing and math, but the state is also asking for data on science achievement from kindergarten through high school.
“It is a lot of data to collect,” she said. “In language arts and math, I think districts will be well-equipped, but I’m not sure what they will have in terms of science.”