Rest easy, states. The Biden administration and its U.S. Department of Education has now made the tough decision for us. The decision no one seemed to want to make.
For months now, educators and policymakers across the country—including in my hone state of New Jersey—have struggled with what to do about student assessments this spring. Last year’s student testing was cancelled because of the onset of COVID-19. This year, school districts across the state were waiting on a decision from the state Department of Education regarding the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment, or NJSLA. In response, the state studied the issue for months, before officially asking federal officials for a waiver from administering its tests this spring.
Educational leaders across the country had been hoping, wishing, and praying that the Feds would cancel “high-stakes” testing again this year. Those in the “know” assumed the Biden administration would answer those prayers, particularly since doing so would align with the expectations of the powerful national teachers unions. But the Biden team surprised everyone last week when it informed state leaders that states must administer standardized tests this year.
And thank goodness it did.
Sure, USED leaders offered some caveats, such as allowing shorter versions of the tests or allowing students to take the tests later in the year than the typical March and April we see here in New Jersey. And the Feds declared that test results for the 2020-21 academic year will not be used in a punitive way when it comes to identifying low-performing schools. But it rejecting the idea of blanket waivers, the Biden administration boldly declared the importance of knowing the academic impact of more than a year in a virtual or hybrid learning environment, and of being honest about the likely learning loss in communities across Jersey.
In November, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the chair of the NJ Senate Education Committee, declared that, “[m]ore than ever, it is abundantly clear there is a need for real-time data on where on children stand academically.” Sen. Ruiz was 100% correct in November, and she is 150% correct today. Students, parents, teachers, policymakers, and taxpayers all need data to understand how effective teaching and learning has been the past 12 months, and the collective work ahead of us to fill the learning losses that have resulted from closed buildings and Zoom classrooms.
At a time when our nation is demanding that our decisions and actions should be guided by the data and the science, we should all be demanding as much data as possible regarding student proficiency and student progress. Yet the chorus of educators in New Jersey opposed to student academic testing seems to be getting louder. And we have to ask why.
During a recent online meeting, the superintendent of a high-achieving NJ school district was asked what he was doing to measure student learning. He immediately rejected the question, saying that his priority was keeping teachers and students healthy. The NJSLA was the least of his concerns. When he was pressed about learning loss and how his teachers would be able to address it without quantifiable student data, he went on to chastise those who use the term “learning loss,” saying it was a hurtful word to students that made them think their academic struggles were their fault, instead of COVID’s. As if being illiterate isn’t hurtful too.
According to the most recent NAEP data, 58% of NJ fourth graders were reading at levels below proficient. Fifty-seven percent of eighth graders were below proficient. And 60% of 12th graders were less than proficient when it comes to literacy. Those are all pre-COVID numbers.
If we believe in the strength of the public education system in New Jersey, if we believe in a strong education (including literacy skills) as a key to success in both career and life, and if we believe that a high-quality public education is a civil right, then we must demand every piece of data available so that we can determine how to better support classroom teachers, how to better disperse state aid, and how to provide every learner the education that is promised to them.
Gov. Phil Murphy, the NJ State Legislature, and school districts across the state should immediately send the strongest thanks to President Joe Biden and his team for making this important decision. Yes, we may not like the data points that come back to us. Yes, our Jersey egos may be bruised for a moment as we accept that a virtual year of schooling wasn’t as effective, learning-wise, as we all hoped for. But less-than-stellar student interim performance is no reason to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that all is well in k-12 education.
Instead of looking for work-arounds and waivers from the latest Federal decree, it’s now time for our legislative leaders to ensure that we are both collecting the student data we need AND deploying it is such a way that we can improve teaching and learning for all kids. In the best of times, we’ve been failing those six in 10 fourth graders … and eighth graders … and 12th graders who are struggling to read. Perhaps the worst of times will force us to act in a way that benefits many of the young learners we have been failing.
An original version of this piece ran on NJ Education Report.