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New Jersey Test Scores Reflect Steep Toll of Remote Learning

More than 60 percent of Algebra 1 students and half of upper elementary kids are far behind in math, nearly a third of high school freshmen likely need substantial help in English, and achievement gaps are widening.

elementary student remote learning at desktop
(TNS) — The first statewide exam after the coronavirus pandemic has revealed a sobering picture of how school closures and virtual learning may have affected New Jersey students.

About half of all New Jersey students in grades 4 through 6 began this school year in need of “strong support” to catch up in math. More than 60 percent of students enrolled in Algebra 1 may have fallen behind. And nearly one in three high school freshmen are expected to need substantial help in English and Language Arts.

The results, presented at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, are from the state’s “Start Strong” exams given statewide for the first time in September and October. The in-person tests for grades 4 to 10 and select high school math courses took 45 to 60 minutes to complete and were designed to give teachers “on-demand” information about how much help their students need, state officials said.

The test scores are not surprising given national trends that predicted a wave of students struggling after months, if not a full year, away from the classroom. But the results finally provide a detailed answer to the question many Garden State parents have been asking: Just how much damage did the pandemic do to our kids?

“I was heartbroken,” state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D- Essex, told NJ Advance Media, regarding the data. “I am not sure that people understand what is at stake here.”

Department of Education officials said the results largely reflect what has happened in other parts of the country. Elementary school students seem to have more “unfinished learning” than older students. And students seem to be struggling more in math than in English.

But it is difficult to draw comparisons to student performance before the pandemic because the Start Strong exams were created after schools had already been shut down. The tests, more streamlined than the multi-day, multi-part standardized exams students usually taken each spring, placed students into one of three categories.

Level I: Strong support may be needed.

Level 2: Some support my be needed.

Level 3: Less support may be needed.

At least 25 percent of students scored in the lowest category, Level 1, on each exam given in both math and language arts.

The results need to be thoughtfully considered in the context of a pandemic that affected students’ well-being both inside and outside of school, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. It is no surprise that the pandemic disrupted students’ learning, he said.

“It is going to take a sustained effort to help students overcome the effects of what happened,” Baker said.

Ruiz, chair of the state Senate Education Committee, is especially concerned about the scores for fourth graders because of research that shows how difficult it is for students to catch up if they fall behind early in elementary school, she said.

The exams showed that 49.3 percent of fourth graders scored in the lowest category in math along with 41.5 percent in English.

The numbers were worse when broken down by race, revealing that 74.3 percent of Black fourth graders likely need “strong support” in math as well as 57 percent in English. Similarly, 69.7 percent of Hispanic fourth graders likely need “strong support " in math and 57.2 percent in English.

That data shines a spotlight on the achievement gaps that have long existed even in New Jersey, which bills itself as having America’s best education system.

“If you don’t think this is a crisis ... then I don’t know what else will make it more alarming than this,” Ruiz said.

Department of Education officials said the test results will help teachers determine how to best help students to catch up. The state’s schools have received more than $4 billion in federal funding for programs, such as summer school, that will address learning loss.

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