A new bill sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight looks like it may pass quickly during the New Jersey Legislature’s lame duck session. The, bill A 5126, orders the Department of Education to “require each school district to submit data on student academic outcomes within 30 days of the effective date of this act.” Specifically, Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan would have to submit a learning loss report during the period of March 2020-June 2021 and delineate “the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on student academic outcomes,” broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, students in special education, English Language Learners, and those eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Ruiz has been a strong advocate for demanding real data on unfinished learning:
- In September 2020 at a Senate Budget Committee meeting, she reamed out then-Interim Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer for boasting (based on flawed metrics), that NJ had the best schools in the country. “If we don’t have baseline data to show to us what is it that we need to do,” Ruiz responded, “we will be perpetuating a fraud of being No. 1 in the country. And that has got to stop.”
- In November 2020, she said of the then-optional assessments called Start Strong offered by the Education Department, “[t]he fact that it’s optional and they’re not requiring the data to go back to them, it just misses the whole intent of what is critically needed. We need to know what has happened during this pandemic.” (Here’s Dale Chu’s take on “the forty-five to sixty minute “dipstick”: “state officials have gone on record saying that Start Strong is not designed to replace statewide testing.”)
- In January 2021, Ruiz said, of the Education Department’s decision (then under Lamont Repollet, who was obeying orders from NJEA leaders) to waive high school graduation requirements, “It just seems we continue to move away from getting a true determination of where we stand as a school system.”
- In June 2021, Ruiz remarked on indications of sharply-dropping student proficiency levels, “the data is clear. It’s there in front of us. Knowing this is a fact facing our students, the [State Department of Education] needs to step up and take action. This reinforces what I was talking about since last March, and even before that. We have disparate percentages of African American, language arts and English-language learners who are below grade level. There has to be a plan to address this.”
And, of course, right now the Department of Education is lobbying the State Board to agree to give up on preparing students for college and career readiness by lowering standards for high school diplomas and defining them as “certifiably ready to graduate high school.” (There will be tests but you don’t have to pass them.)
This new bill proposal is, in effect, an end-run attempt around the desultory 64 Floor attitude of the Murphy Administration’s Education Department towards the educational debt accrued by school districts towards our 1.4 million students due to extended school closures and ineffective remote instruction. How much do we owe students to start repairing the academic loss engendered by COVID-19?
Bottom line: We won’t know without data. We have snippets here and there: In Newark, 81% of fourth graders and 65% of eighth graders scored in the lowest score range in math; only 9% of students in grades 2-8 met state expectations in math while only 11% met expectations in reading. In Trenton, 70% of students are below grade level in reading and 90% are below grade level in math. Sure, wealthy students with access to tutors and micro-schools may be fine. But if we don’t measure the problem, how can we effectively address it? The new bill proposal aims to remedy that by requiring the Department of Education to stop messing around and start serving students.