To help districts measure how much academic ground students lost when the final third of the past school year abruptly became all-virtual, the state will make available online assessments in English, math and science at the end of September.

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The ‘Start Strong’ assessment will be free and available to all school districts but won’t be mandated, interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee at a Thursday hearing.

“It’s a snapshot, benchmark assessment so that they can understand where that student is relative to the skills needed to be on grade level. It’s designed to be done quickly, within about one period, so it’s not a multi-day assessment,” Dehmer said. “It can be turned around quickly so the educators that are working with those students know where each student sits relative to the necessary skills.”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has introduced legislation requiring start-of-year diagnostic assessments to measure ‘learning loss.’

“Not one to grade the school, not one to be used for evaluation of the teacher, not one to impact funding or anything. Just to get a real-time snap on where our children are,” Ruiz said. “… Because once this is all over, we have to be sure that we have the courage to talk about what is it that we’re going to do to bridge the academic gap that has existed pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic and post-pandemic.”

Ruiz appeared unhappy that a diagnostic test isn’t being required, even if it’s not the Start Strong assessment, particularly if the results aren’t then collected by the state.

“I’m asking for a diagnostic tool that checks in academically to see where our students are, that we can break down by ZIP code, that we can break down by race, ethnicity and gender,” Ruiz said.

“If we don’t have baseline data to show to us what is it that we need to do, we will be perpetrating a fraud of being number one in the country. And that has got to stop,” she said.

Dehmer said the assessment would be available on the same platform used for the annual state assessments but that a test like the one Ruiz described in which results could be compared within and across districts is more complex than the 45- to 60-minute assessment planned.

The assessment would be based on prior-year academic standards and provide instantaneous results. Tests would available for in English language arts (ELA) grades 4-10; Mathematics grades 4-8, Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II; and in Science grades 6, 9, and 12.

The tests could be administered remotely or in-person, the NJDOE said.

Last spring, students didn’t take the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments after school buildings were closed to the coronavirus pandemic. Dehmer expects they will be administered this school year.

“So far the federal government had maintained that there is unlikely to be a waiver for that again this year,” Dehmer said. “So we are working with all states because every state is in the same position as us, trying to understand what we can do to provide that assessment and how it might be delivered given the COVID world. That might change. We don’t know exactly where that will land. So we’re kind of trying to plan for multiple avenues.”

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