COMMENTARY: Some Advice for NJ’s New Ed Commissioner: If We Don’t Measure, We Can’t Fix It

For the last three years students, parents, teachers, and schools have been effectively abandoned by the New Jersey Department of Education. The mismanagement by former Commissioner Lamont Repollet has led to a sea of troubles, both for those who work under him and those who depend on his leadership.  His replacement, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, now faces tough challenges as we ride out a pandemic that may, once again, require statewide school closures; some kids may not see the inside of a classroom for a full year. Yet if she can withstand teacher union pressure (enhanced by Gov. Murphy’s fealty to NJEA executives) and hold the line on a single aspect of oversight, Allen-McMillan could make a big difference for NJ’s high-risk children, disproportionately low-income and of color.

How? Mandate short, no-stakes statewide assessments.

Or, to put it another way, prioritize children’s needs over adult special interests.

Let’s take stock of the last three years because Repollet’s damage to the DOE (to be fair, enabled by Murphy) was vast and ties directly to Allen-McMillan’s challenges. Here’s a short list: Repollet dismantled the Office of Educational Technology (later a major cause of our gaping digital divide); eschewed accountability by cancelling district audits; replaced experienced staffers with neophytes; and lowered academic expectations for students. When the pandemic hit, the “guidance” issued by the DOE, still under his watch, was, according to  NJ School Boards Association President Lawrence Feinsod,“ever-changing, inconsistent and, often, inadequate.” A NJ legislator (who asked for confidentiality) told Politico, “I’ve had a lot of superintendents, a lot of principals from my area reach out lamenting the lack of guidance they have received from the Department of Education. My office tried facilitating conference calls with the DOE and our superintendents and we never even received a response back from DOE to help schedule some of these things.”

This abandonment doesn’t matter so much for families with resources to bypass the DOE. They hire tutors or enroll their kids in private school or create micropods or make it their full-time job to oversee remote instruction and advocate for their child’s needs. Some students are learning more than they did in pre-pandemic times. They’ll do fine on standardized assessments. 

The students who must be center-stage are those who lack those advantages.

The way to place them center-stage is to measure their learning loss through statewide standardized tests. As Kati Haycock of EducationTrust says, “kids who are not tested end up not counting.”

We need to count those kids.

  • As ExcelinEd says, “When children are not in school, learning loss is real. We cannot help students recover from the pandemic’s impacts if we don’t know what they need.
  • As Robin Lake from the Center For Reforming Public Education said, “We know how to flatten the learning loss curve, but it will require information and assessments to be able to diagnose those learning losses quickly.”
  • As America’s leading civil rights groups said in a letter issued this week, “We cannot improve what we do not measure. And if we do not measure the opportunity gaps being exacerbated during COVID-19, we risk losing a generation of young people.” 

Allen-McMillan can do more than repair New Jersey’s shattered DOE that had been content to, as Kyle Rosenkrans* told the New York Times, proceed with a  “let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom strategy.” But that strategy, he says,  “falls apart [when] we’re setting minimum standards for academic progress. As in so many contexts, if you’re low income, a student of color, you’re getting set further behind.”

In fact, Allen-McMillan can serve as a model for the rest of America in combating covid learning loss. Her mission in New Jersey is not dissimilar to the national scene where, for example,  Baltimore’s Sonja Santelises has opened schools to higher-risk kids while, only 100 miles away, Philadelphia schools remain closed until “further notice.”  As epidemiologist Stephanie Silvera of Montclair State University noted, “[New Jersey] is a microcosm of the nation. We have this patchwork public health system. We don’t have a coordinated public health system.” (She could have added, “we don’t have a coordinated public education system.)

And what is the Commissioner’s most important task?

Mandate Spring assessments. Show other school leaders out there that you’re not cowed by fiats from the National Education Associations like “[a]dmit that high-stakes standardized testing has negative effects on students from all backgrounds, especially those from under-resourced communities, English language learners, children of color, and those with disabilities. Suspend federal testing requirements until after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.  Oppose the use of standardized tests for federally mandated determination of a student’s future or an educator’s evaluation or as an indicator of school success.”

Sure, that’s dandy for the kids in micropods with $500/day tutors. Not so fine for 70% of Black students in New Jersey who (according to this recent poll) haven’t had anything but remote instruction since March. 

We cannot improve what we do not measure.

Currently the standardized testing  schedule is still up on the DOE website but I’m detecting some ill winds. When John Mooney of NJ Spotlight inquired, he got Allen-McMillan’s spokesperson, who said, “We can only proceed under the current direction that has been provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Beyond that, we wouldn’t speculate on scenarios.” 

So don’t speculate. Instead, follow the advice of experts and mandate that all schools test students in the spring so that we go into the 2021-2022 school year with our eyes wide open to Covid learning loss. In that letter to the U.S. Education Department, the consortium of civil rights groups write, 

Particularly now, during this time of national crisis, states and school districts have a duty to serve our most vulnerable children by doing all they can to assess the impact of the pandemic and to provide additional resources and support to the students that need them the most. We cannot improve what we do not measure, and if we do not measure the opportunity gaps being exacerbated during COVID19, we risk losing a generation of young people.

Dr. Allen-McMillan should know that the NJ State Legislature has her back, even if Murphy doesn’t.  Two weeks ago the New Jersey Senate Democrats released a statement on a just-released legislative proposal that would require the Department of Education to quantify the impact remote instruction has had on students around the state.

“More than ever, it is abundantly clear there is a need for real-time data on where our children stand academically,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “If we are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap we must acknowledge there was a divide pre-COVID, we must assess to see where we are now, in the midst of the pandemic, and we must invest post-COVID to ensure that gap does not continue to grow the way it has over the last eight months.“

This isn’t brain surgery: Require every district to administer short, no-stakes, online standardized assessments in the spring (NWEA’s will do just fine) to measure learning gaps so schools can start the 2021-2022 school year with the critical information we need to take care of our kids. 

Remember, those thousands of wilting flowers referenced by Rosenkrans aren’t school buildings. They’re at-risk children who, without strong intervention, may never recover their potential for academic success. How could there be more at stake?

*Rosenkrans is executive director of New Jersey Children’s Foundation. NJCF gave a grant to brightbeam, where I work.

What do you think?