For the Sake of Students, Cancel the Standardized Tests

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) released a position paper about the NJ 2020 budget, set to be voted on by the NJ legislature. NJEA took a neutral position on the proposed budget and did not reiterate its case for the millionaire’s tax.

Even in a deeply divided, highly polarized society, there are a few things that overwhelming majorities of New Jersey residents agree on. Puppies are cute. Pizza is delicious. The Jersey shore is the best shore. And standardized testing has no place in the midst of a disruptive, year-long global pandemic.

That makes it all the more perplexing that the New Jersey Department of Education seems to be stumbling along toward a plan to return to the testing status quo during a year that is anything but normal. Despite an invitation from the Biden administration to apply for a waiver from this spring’s federally mandated statewide testing and despite repeated entreaties from groups representing parents, students, educators and administrators, Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan has so far resisted asking for that waiver and has insisted on proceeding as if testing will take place this spring.

She’s doing so in the face of united opposition from those who best understand the devastating effects that it will have on New Jersey’s students.  The Educational Law Center, which for nearly 50 years has advocated for students in New Jersey’s most economically challenged school districts, has issued a plea to Gov. Murphy to apply for the federal waiver. In a letter dated Feb. 2, the ELC lays out overwhelming evidence that current conditions preclude administering the tests fairly or equitably, meaning that any data gathered will be invalid. Since “data” is the only reason anyone has heard cited for proceeding with testing this spring, invalid data is a compelling reason not to subject students to the undue stress of testing this year.

ELC is also rightly concerned about the disparate harm that would be caused by plowing forward with statewide testing.  “The extended testing window proposed by the DOE in its January 27 memo would span nearly three months and further restrict the instructional time and educator interaction available to the state’s most vulnerable students, including students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families,” wrote ELC Executive Director David Sciarra.  He is right. That inequity alone is reason enough to abandon this ill-conceived plan.

ELC is not the only group concerned about the effects on students. Save our Schools New Jersey, a parent group dedicated to looking out for the welfare of all New Jersey students, has sent thousands of letters to Gov. Murphy imploring him to step in and stop the testing. “New Jersey students of all ages have had their learning significantly disrupted by the pandemic and are experiencing unprecedented levels of economic and health anxiety and stress,” say the letters they sent. “Administering a statewide standardized assessment under the current circumstances will not produce valid or useful information and will only further reduce the already limited time available for effective teaching and learning.”

SOS has also noted that Gov. Murphy ran on a platform of eliminating just the kind of tests that his administration now seems reluctant even to suspend in the midst of a global pandemic.  SOS cites his own words as a candidate speaking at the 2016 NJEA Convention: “Scrap PARCC Day One, scrap PARCC as a high school graduation requirement… PARCC fails on many levels, and the notion of teaching to the test as opposed to the students’ needs has a whole Christmas tree of liabilities. It is time wasted, it is misguided.”

If that was true when he was a candidate and students and schools were operating under much better conditions, it’s far truer today when he is Governor and has the power to act on behalf of students who are working harder than ever to adapt and learn under conditions no one ever imagined in 2016.

Likewise, professional educators see the folly and the danger in proceeding with standardized testing this spring. Pat Wright, Executive Director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association wrote in an op-ed last week: “Are we willing to put already stressed students in a situation that may compound their anxieties?” She then went on to question why the state, which is still short of fully funding schools and facing another challenging budget year, would spend the money – estimated at $30 million this year – on testing, even though “It will be impossible to ensure the results yield meaningful information about all categories of test takers, including students from low-income families, racial and ethnic subgroups, and students with disabilities.”  Instead, she suggests, “let’s be proactive and use that money to develop the tools that will truly inform instruction in 2021-2022.”

Advocates for children, passionate parents and experienced administrators oppose these tests.  And so do NJEA members.

From the day our schools went remote, we’ve seen firsthand the impact this pandemic has had on our students. We’ve watched their stress and frustration and used every tool at our disposal to support our students’ social-emotional wellbeing even as we have worked overtime to make sure they keep learning whether their schools are remote, hybrid or fully in-person. We know what our students have lost in the last year in terms of their social relationships with their peers.  And we know what they have lost because science and safety dictate that we are not able to provide the sort of collaborative, connected classroom environment that is best for learning.

It’s heart-wrenching to see our students struggle. And it’s infuriating to think that the state might choose unnecessarily to impose tests that cause them additional stress, rob more of the time we need for real instruction and siphon resources that could be used to actually help our students recover from the most disrupted, most challenging, most stressful school year any of us have ever experienced.

NJEA has pledged, along with administrators, to work together with the Department of Education to gather and share student data that will actually be helpful in addressing student needs. That could include locally created diagnostic assessments to provide near instant actionable feedback that we can use immediately to help students. In fact, that sort of assessment is already happening every day in classrooms (and bedrooms and living rooms and at kitchen tables) across New Jersey. It’s the kind of assessment that has always been most valuable and the only kind of assessment that can match the moment we are in.

There are a hundred other reasons for the Department of Education to request – in fact, to demand! – a testing wavier this spring. Challenges around technology, test security, data reliability, cost, equity and use of class time are just a few reasons that those of us closest to this issue are so united in our advocacy.

But the biggest reason NJEA members are demanding action is the simplest: we love our students and we refuse to sit quietly and watch as they are subjected to a stressful, pointless disruption in a school year that has already asked too much of them.

We’ve had their backs all year, and we will not let them down now.

Marie Blistan is a teacher of students with special needs in Washington Twp. and currently serves as the elected president of the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association.

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