NJ students lost 7 years of progress during pandemic: report

New Jersey’s students lost about seven years of progress during the COVID-19 pandemic, based on long-awaited test results the state Department of Education presented to the state Board of Education this month.

Results of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments from last spring indicated that overall, proficiency rates fell back to 2015 levels, after gradual increases from 2015 to 2019. The tests were not administered in 2020 or 2021 during the pandemic.

State Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, called the results “a jarring alarm to the work that lies ahead,” noting 51.1% of students were not meeting grade expectations in English Language Arts and 64.6% were not meeting expectations in mathematics.

The state did not release statewide school-by-school results, as advocates had requested last week. Such figures could be used to determine which schools and districts were effectively addressing significant learning losses since the pandemic.

Board member Joseph Ricca, the superintendent of the White Plains, N.Y., school district, urged that no one forget the children behind the scores.

“We forget that in those numbers are the deaths, the losses of jobs, [and] the inability to connect with instruction on a structured basis,” Ricca said. “There was a tremendous amount of challenge and trauma that took place all throughout the state of New Jersey and the world.”

While noting that politicians will be quick to blame the results on whomever they choose, he asked acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, “How do we best use this data?”

She pointed to the initiative announced last week, the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success, which aims to use 5,000 volunteers to help with tutoring, coaching, and improving mental health.

“Our students flourish when all pitch in,” Allen-McMillan said, adding that it is important for one-time federal COVID relief money to be used based on local needs and on what research has shown to be effective. “This is the moment we begin to leverage the funds in a unique way we haven’t yet.”

The acting commissioner also spoke of the importance of focusing efforts on early elementary students who were learning to read when their schooling was interrupted.

According to the Collaborative for Student Success, an organization that monitors state release of test scores, only New Jersey, Vermont, and Maine have not yet published 2022 spring results on their public data dashboards.

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, called the delay “embarrassing, politically motivated, and an insult to the parents of children who may never fully recover from the educational failings.”

Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, an education advocacy group, said the department’s presentation “missed the boat.”

“To this day, we still need to find out which districts or schools are the beacons of light that we can learn from at this crucial time,” White said. “This unacceptable time lag for information delivery minimizes our students’ efforts with their assessments and the work of our great teachers.”

The department did not say when such school-by-school data would be available, and its press office did not immediately respond to a message requesting that information.

In the English/Language Arts tests, the percentage of proficient students in grades three through nine fell statewide, with seventh and eighth graders experiencing the largest slide, losing 10 and 12 percentage points, respectively. The losses were steeper in math.

John Boczany, the state’s newly appointed director of assessments, presented proficiency levels by race and ethnicity. He said that Hispanic students lost 8.9 percentage points in English/Language Arts, white students last 8.6 points, Black students lost 7.4 points, and Asian students lost 4.5 points. The gaps between highest- and lowest-performing groups also increased during the pandemic.

Calling the overall results “stark,” he said they provide critical information about where students are now, so schools could strategize on how best to help them move forward. School-by-school data would be published once it had been cleared of any information that could identify individual students, he said.

Assistant Commissioner Jorden Schiff noted that school officials in other states are already seeing improvements in more recent tests, more in English/Language Arts than in math.

Steven Baker, the spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said students need resources to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, “starting with making sure we have enough educators in our classrooms.” He said the Governor’s Task Force on Public School Staff Shortages would help.

The board also heard other test results, including from the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment given on an experimental basis to certain 10th graders. It showed that 39.4% were likely to be ready to graduate based on their English/language arts skills, and 49.5% were showing math readiness. The test will not be required for the class of 2023, and its fate is unclear, as many education experts disagree on the advisability of requiring students to pass a test to graduate.

Department officials noted that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which were released this fall, New Jersey slipped in the rankings, falling from 4th to 16th in math proficiency rates of fourth graders, though they were still above the national average. Scores here slid more steeply for lower-performing students than for higher-performing ones. The math scores dropped for the first time, and in English/Language Arts, the drop was the largest since 1990. New Jersey fell from 3rd to 5th in the nation in these reading scores. No other state had higher reading proficiency rates among eighth graders.

Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, a nonprofit schools advocacy group, urged parents to talk to teachers directly about how their students are faring.

“Standardized tests give an overview of state-level data but not much (use) at the student level, since teachers have no idea what questions were posed, nor how the students answered them,” she said. “The classroom-level information is going to be much more useful for parents in supporting their children.”

From NJ.com
Photo: Annie Spratt