New Jersey delays state tests, giving officials time to ‘explore all options’

An orange sign says “testing in progress, do not disturb” as students work in the background.
New Jersey will delay its state tests until April, as the Biden administration decides whether to let students skip the tests for a second straight year. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

New Jersey will delay its state tests for a month, buying education officials time as the Biden administration decides whether to let students skip the tests for a second straight year.

Students will take the annual English, math, and science tests no earlier than April 5 instead of next month as planned, the New Jersey education department said Thursday. The delay will give districts more time to prepare and allow the state to “explore all options,” including changes to how the test scores are used.

The department, which just last month told districts to prepare for spring testing, has not signaled whether it will seek permission from the federal government to suspend the tests.

The delay comes as some state lawmakers and education groups, including the state teachers union, urge New Jersey to request a waiver from the federal government to cancel the standardized tests, which they argue are not useful or appropriate for students to take during the pandemic. 

“We are pleased to learn that the New Jersey Department of Education has announced a delay in the implementation of standardized testing this spring,” said a statement Thursday from the state teachers union and groups representing school principals and administrators. “Nonetheless, we remain steadfast in our opposition to any statewide standardized testing this year in light of the conditions our students have faced for the last 11 months.”

Students in grades 3-8 and high school were scheduled to start taking the federally mandated tests on March 15. Students who are still learning English were set to take different tests beginning next week. Because some districts have yet to reopen school buildings, some students across the state were likely to take the tests remotely while others would sit for them in person. 

The federal government waived the requirement for students to take the tests last spring after the coronavirus pandemic forced school buildings to close. President Joe Biden’s administration has not indicated whether it will grant exemptions this year, though it has extended the deadline for states to request flexibility in how they use the test results.

Yet some states, including Michigan and New York, have already sought permission to skip the tests entirely, saying that testing some students remotely and others in person would not yield reliable results.

New Jersey education groups have made similar arguments, adding that schools have already given local assessments to track students’ progress this year and that additional tests would squander valuable class time. On Thursday, two Democratic state assembly members said they would introduce a bill requiring New Jersey to request a federal testing waiver.

But other advocates and lawmakers, including state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the senate education committee, are pushing New Jersey to measure the pandemic’s toll on student learning. They say that statewide academic data is crucial for identifying which districts and groups of students have fallen furthest behind and targeting resources accordingly.

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“We know that even pre-pandemic there were inequities across our state,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCan, a group that supports test-based accountability. She noted that some research from the fall showed low-income students and students of color had regressed the most. “So measuring and having an understanding of where our students are 11 months into the pandemic is even more critical.”

New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, has not given any indication that the state plans to seek a testing waiver.

She told a panel of state lawmakers this week that the state education department is closely monitoring federal guidance around testing, but that the Biden administration has yet to say it will issue testing waivers. She added that the state is creating guidance for districts on strategies for filling in learning gaps created by the pandemic, including tutoring, teacher training, and summer school.

“We understand, however, that it is impossible to accelerate learning if you cannot measure it,” she said Tuesday.

As new coronavirus cases decline, a growing number of New Jersey districts are reopening classrooms. More than 580 districts are now offering some in-person instruction, while 190 remain fully remote, Allen-McMillan said. The monthlong testing delay would give some of the fully remote districts, including Newark, time to reopen school buildings before students sit for the exams.

New Jersey said last month that this year’s state test scores will not be used to determine whether high school seniors can graduate or to evaluate teachers.

In its memo Thursday announcing that it would postpone the test start date, the state education department said it is trying to monitor student learning during the pandemic while also paying attention to students’ social and mental health needs.

“Across the nation, states and schools are working to answer new and evolving questions about how to best provide statewide snapshots of student progress and growth,” the message said, “while prioritizing the health, wellbeing and safety of all students and educators.”

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