HOWELL – Howell Township School District Superintendent Joseph Isola has stated his opinion on the new statewide assessment, claiming it to be unnecessary and an extreme overreach.
At the recent Howell Board of Education meeting, Assistant Superintendent/Curriculum and Personnel Bruce Preston gave a presentation on the relatively new state-run Start Strong testing.
According to Preston, the Start Strong assessment provides information to be used as a standards-based complement. The data is used in understanding where students are in terms of their readiness for the courses that they’re currently sitting in.
The Start Strong tests were originally introduced in fall 2020 and was optional for districts. However, Governor Phil Murphy’s administration made the tests a requirement in 2021 and 2022.
“Last spring, we gave the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment in the spring of 2022. In the fall of 2022, as per regulation, we reported those scores to you. At that nearly same time as we were reporting those scores to you, our students were sitting in the classes taking the Start Strong Assessment. We get the score reports back, now here we are in the winter reporting the Start Strong scores to you which were taken in the fall,” Preston said. “It’s a look back, but I think it’s really important that we understand that this is work that is already out with teachers, used to help students in terms of what their needs are for the classes they are sitting in.”
Preston explained that the Start Strong Assessment does not replace local standard-based benchmark assessment districts that may already in place. It also does not replace the spring 2023 New Jersey Student Learning Assessments (NJSLA) statewide summative assessment or are predictive of their results.
“It’s just an additional component. It’s one more data point in a dashboard or a windshield full of data points,” Preston said.
With the Start Strong Assessment, students who are entering their new grade level in the fall are tested on material learned at the previous grade level. Although the assessment is similar to the NJSLA, they are slightly different but have the same purpose.
“It’s a smaller assessment, meant to be a fast assessment. It’s about a child’s readiness for the course they’re sitting in currently in the fall. We use this information along with Star to make sure of that readiness,” Preston said. “This is the State’s template that they encourage districts to use. Districts should not compare any individual student/school/district Start Strong data to any NJSLA data. Start Strong Assessments were not designed to predict future student performance on the NJSLA, nor was it designed to estimate what score a student would have received if they had taken the NJSLA in Spring 2022.”
Mathematics, Science Supervisor Erin Fedina as well as Language Arts Literacy Supervisor Jane Losinger discussed the data from the previous assessment which showed an estimated number of students who needed more support, some support, or less support.
According to the data, percentages were relatively equal when it came to mathematics. However, for grades 6 and 8, they had a higher percentage of students that need more support. For language arts, many of the grades were above 50% of students needing less support. Grades 4 and 6 fell sightly short with their percentages being in the 40s.
“It’s not as deep and wide as the New Jersey Learning Student Assessment, but we do get the results back faster,” Losinger said about Start Strong. “Really, we have two assessments from the state that function similarly, they are different but they do function similarly in terms of what they’re looking at. There’s not much time in between there of actual school time, that we’re actually doing intervention work. It’d about gathering data.”
After the presentation, one board member asked if Start Strong was specifically developed to track learning loss from COVID. Preston said not necessarily.
“It’s meant to be a fall anticipatory assessment for kids, especially in districts that did not have their own local assessment. We had one, we had Star. However, in the absence of New Jersey Student Learning Assessment being administered during that particular year, New Jersey still had a reporting obligation to the federal government. So they used a fall administration last year of the Start Strong to give back data to the federal government to meet that compliance mandate. The state then decided that they would mandate its administration this year as well as last year. The reason we were given was because that was the decision that was made at the DOA,” Preston said.
Currently, it is unclear whether the state will make Start Strong Assessment permanent every fall. Superintendent Isola gave his opinion, stating he feels the assessment is extremely unnecessary.
“It is duplicating information. Our teachers have the resources. We have the tools to determine student needs very early in the school years, and surgically attack student’s needs. This is an extreme overreach by our (State) Department of Education and I could never have felt more strongly against its assessment being administered. They needed to do something. They were prudent and they did what they had to do coming out of the pandemic or within the pandemic, and I recognize that,” Isola said. “The department is clearly indicated that they’re using it to compare statewide date. Yet they tell us not to use this test in that very way. They have talked two tongues and have sent mixed messaging… I’m not exactly sure where this is going, but to me this educational malpractice by the DOE. We will continue to comply. I will continue to advocate against it. We will continue to utilize the data we get because we’re doing it and what we collect we can utilize and have an optimistic positive approach. Like I always do.”
Several board members shared their thoughts and expressed their agreement with Isola. They questioned what is the purpose of the test if many students regress during the summer. Some members also stated that the assessment is a waste of time and also puts more pressure on students.