Learning loss toll in NJ: Test scores show a 7-year setback
TRENTON – Test scores on New Jersey’s standardized assessments slipped back to their levels from seven years ago on the exams given this past spring, the first since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020.
Compared with 2019, the most recent available because tests were skipped in 2020 and 2021, the percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations on the NJSLA plunged by 8.7% for English, down to 48.9%, and by 10.1% for math, down to 34.6%, among comparable populations of students.
The decline was sobering but anticipated, given that students were suddenly relegated to online learning for the last three months of the 2019-20 school year and that disruptions – whether fully virtual, partially, shortened days, masks, the suspension of extracurriculars – continued into 2021, setting back their academic progress and social connections and relationships.
“In order to move forward in the best manner possible, we kind of need to know a little bit of what happened, where the students are,” said John Boczany, acting director of the Office of Assessment in the state Department of Education. “This data coming out – yes, it is stark, but it provides that critical piece of information on where the students currently are so now we can build from there.”
“Testing provides a single data point, like checking a temperature. It can tell us what, but not why,” said Jorden Schiff, the NJDOE’s assistant commissioner for field services. “This is a critical distinction with the data more than ever considering the sheer magnitude and change to daily life in schools and communities and the variation between those communities throughout the pandemic.”
How the state will respond
Asked by State Board of Education vice president Andrew Mulvihill whether the extended closure of school doors early in the pandemic was a mistake, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said it was driven by health advice and that she stood by Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision.
Allen-McMillan also detailed the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success initiative announced last week, including $10 million toward tutoring and $5 million toward early literacy programs.
“Our students can flourish when we all pitch in,” Allen-McMillan said. “And when our efforts are coordinated, research-based, locally driven and positive toward the outcome that this is the moment when we begin to leverage the funds in a unique way that we haven’t because we have a limited amount of time to make these one-time investments that are going to help propel us forward and begin to reshape how we see teaching and learning in New Jersey.”
Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the testing is an important tool in deciding where effort and resources need to be directed.
“Assessments test scores released by the state today are a jarring alarm to the work that lies ahead,” Ruiz said. “In addition to this, it is devastating to see the persistence of the achievement gap. This gap existed before the pandemic and the negative impacts of the pandemic have led to widen it.
Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Education Reform Project at the Education Law Center, noted the State Board of Education set the cut score for passing the NJSLA exams at a higher level than what the staff or testing vendor had recommended.
“The ELC estimates that that reduced the passing rate by about 15 to 20% on each section of the test,” Karp said.
School-level data to come out ... eventually
The state said it doesn’t know when school-level and district-level data will be made public.
Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, said the continuing lack of specific results is unacceptable.
“If our children took the time to take the tests, we should prioritize taking the time to extract from their efforts the best ways we can to serve them,” White said. “What is most clear from today's summary is that New Jersey can no longer tout the tagline that we are ‘No. 1 in education’ when we are dead last in disseminating valuable information to the public for the benefit of our children.”
Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said the state is stalling so the public doesn't get a clear understanding of how students have been hurt by the pandemic and how the Murphy administration handled it.
“To fully understand the gravity of the long-term impact, and to help forge a plan to mitigate the damage and salvage a generation of youngsters, we must have access to all the facts, not just hand-selected ‘highlights,’” Corrado said. “The longer the Murphy administration continues to hide the truth, the more difficult it will be to reverse the damage caused by his policies.”
NJGPA (Graduation Proficiency Assessment)
The NJGPA, which was being given for the first time, was retroactively turned into a field test under a law enacted in July. It isn’t a factor in determining whether a student in the Class of 2023 graduates – though the one being given in three months is due to count for the Class of 2024, the current juniors.
On the English exam, 39.4% of students were deemed ready for graduation and 60.6% were not. On the math portion, 49.5% were graduation ready and 50.5% were not.
As is common, there were wide variances among racial and other demographic characteristics:
White: 61% passed math, 46.5% passed English
Hispanic: 30.7% passed math, 26.1% passed English
Black: 24.6% passed math, 20.2% passed English
Asian: 84.7% passed math, 69.7% passed English
Economically disadvantaged: 28.3% passed math, 23% passed English
English language learners: 12.2% passed math, 4.7% passed English
Students with disabilities: 12.8% passed math, 7.2% passed English
NJSLA (Student Learning Assessments)
Compared with 2019, the last time the tests were given, the share of students who got passing scores on the NJSLA dropped by roughly 8 percentage points to 11.5 percentage points on the English exam and by 8 percentage points to 14 percentage points on the math exam, depending on the grade.
Overall, 48.9% of students got passing scores on English language arts and around 35% got passing scores on math.
The math exam data is tricky to compare because of changes in which high school students take the geometry and algebra II exams. Far fewer took them because others were taking it as part of the NJGPA, so the passing rates appeared to improve notably – but not in a way that’s statistically valid.
On the English exam, passing rates compared with 2019 were 8.9% lower among Hispanic students, 8.6% among white students, 7.4% among Black students and 4.5% among Asian students. The largest racial achievement gap – between Asian students at 78.8% passing and Black students at 30.5% – grew to 48.3 percentage points, from 45.4 points three years earlier.
On the math exam, passing rates compared with 2019 were 8.9% lower among Hispanic students, 7.9% among white students, 7.2% among Black students and 5.3% among Asian students. The largest racial achievement gap – between Asian students at 71.7% passing and Black ones at 15% – grew to 56.7 percentage points, from 54.8 points three years earlier.
The science passing rate fell by 2.2% – though it had less room to drop, as only 23.2% of students are deemed proficient or advanced proficient on the exam, which was given for the first time officially in 2019 and then was suspended for two years.