TRENTON – Some state education officials are sounding the alarm after midyear assessments showed three of every eight New Jersey public school students scored below grade level in math and English language arts.

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The coronavirus pandemic upended education, pushing classes online at all schools for three months last spring and still continuing more than a year later at a handful of schools. It also messed with New Jersey’s statewide standardized tests, which were canceled both last and this school year.

All students will take a new ‘Start Strong’ assessment when they return next fall. Districts were also directed to administer locally selected assessments this past winter and report results to the state, and the results underscore the challenges posed by the pandemic:

  • In English language arts, 37% of 946,000 students tested were below grade level, 38% were at grade level and 25% were above grade level.
  • In math, 37% of 1.02 million students tested were below grade level, 38% were at grade level and 24% were above grade level.
  • In science, 21% of 794,000 students tested were below grade level, 45% were at grade level and 33% were above grade level.

The results can’t be compared with the typical standardized tests but show a similar socioeconomic pattern, with Black and Hispanic students twice as likely to score below grade level than white and Asian students. English learners, economically disadvantaged and disabled students also struggled.

“In addition to what we consider concerning percentages of students who are below grade level at the midyear point, we’re also noting the continued and alarming disproportionate equity gaps between our white students and students of color,” said Assistant Education Commissioner Lisa Gleason, who heads the Division of Academics and Performance.

“I am concerned, certainly, with the findings for those most vulnerable students that we have, and I’m looking forward to hearing other examples and ways that we can provide support – not just through federal funding but what we can do from the department side,” said Kathy Goldenberg, the State Board of Education president.

“We are really in a state of emergency in New Jersey when it comes to our kids and our education,” said Andrew Mulvihill, the board’s vice president. “This pandemic and keeping the kids out of school and remote learning seems to have done tremendous damage to our children and their amount of learning that has gone on.”

“We have to recognize that we’ve been dealt a blow, and we all have to work very, very hard to recover from this,” he said. “And I think we’re going to have to be very, very careful about how we spend this federal money that’s coming. I know it’s not up to the state’s control. It’s going to be the districts. But we really want to make sure we keep an eye on the ball.”

Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said in-person education matters and that districts and teachers worked hard to return to school, either fully or hybrid. But, she said, health and safety come first.

“We know that while it’s not ideal and while we believe that students learn best in schools, we also have expanded the ability to provide quality remote instruction,” Allen-McMillan said.

“It has not been a drain for everyone. It has not been a failure for everyone,” she said. “And to the contrary, we have heard over the course of the last six months in particular of many who have shared opportunities of success.”

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The youngest elementary school students generally fared better than those in older elementary and middle-school grades. Gleason noted that the youngest students are the least independent in a remote learning setting, unfamiliar with the technology and reliant on parents and others to be their teacher’s partner.

“We want to commend our parents and caregivers because we believe that without the incredible support that they provided during this time, especially during remote learning, that this data would have been even more abysmal,” Gleason said.

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