NJ Cleared To Hold Off On School Testing


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This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

In a bit of a surprise, the Murphy administration has won permission from the federal government to hold off on the state’s student testing program for this spring and to administer an abbreviated version in the fall.

But after what turned out to be a busy 24 hours of discussion on the topic, what exactly will take place to measure student performance in the meantime remains in question, as worries mount over the potential damage the pandemic has wrought on school instruction and learning.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday confirmed in his daily coronavirus media briefing that the federal Department of Education has permitted the state to suspend its standardized Student Learning Assessments for the second year, due to the many challenges to carrying out such testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter this week, the federal Department of Education said the state’s plan to conduct a shorter test in the fall — called “Start Strong” — would suffice in meeting federal requirements for annual testing, as long as districts continue less formal, in-class assessments this spring as well.

Testing last fall was voluntary
The Start Strong test was administered last fall, but on a voluntary basis and it resulted in limited data. Next fall’s administration would be mandatory under the state’s plan.

“Based on the information you have provided,” read the letter from Ian Rosenblum, an assistant deputy secretary of the federal education department. “I understand that your Start Strong statewide summative assessment is built on the State’s assessment framework and will result in information that is reported to individual parents and the public and that meets the other requirements.”

State education groups that have been pushing for the testing waiver jumped on the news, issuing a joint statement by midday — even before Murphy’s announcement — applauding the federal permission.

The approval from Washington had hardly been assured, as the Biden administration and its new education secretary, Miguel Cardona, had signaled such waivers might be spare.

Tests ‘not helpful or appropriate’
“New Jersey students will not have to see their instruction time interrupted to take tests that are not helpful or appropriate under current conditions,” said the statement from three groups representing the bulk of New Jersey’s school administrators and teachers, including the New Jersey Education Association.

“Districts and the state will be able to use alternative forms of assessment to gather useful data that will help identify and support student needs,” the statement added. “This is a win for New Jersey students and families as we continue our work to support the social, emotional and academic needs of students during and after this pandemic.”

Still, acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan left open questions on Wednesday at the State Board of Education meeting as to what exactly the state’s permission means for New Jersey schools.

At the board meeting, the administration also tabled a separate proposal relating to state assessments that would have put in place new regulations for how tests will be used in future as high school graduation requirements. The new proposed regulations had come under criticism from advocacy groups.

Allen-McMillan said the department would review the feds’ letter in the coming days; she is scheduled to speak before the Senate budget committee on Thursday, where she is sure to be questioned about the state plans.

Murphy himself said there was also some question to whether the state would still need to conduct its annual spring testing for special education and limited-English populations.

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