Dickinson High School Jersey City 16x9

Jersey City Board of Education trustees at Thursday’s board meeting heard the results of a state-mandated test that had been administered to measure students’ learning needs after 18 months of virtual classes. They also heard  recommendations on how to teach about Black history year-round.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Ellen Ruane presented on the test, called the “Start Strong Assessments,” which had been given in October. The exams were taken by fourth through 10th graders in English Language Arts; fourth through eighth graders in math; students who’d taken Algebra I and II and geometry; and sixth, ninth and twelfth graders in science.

“It was a short test that showed the learning that happened or didn’t happen during virtual learning,” Ruane said.

The tests served as New Jersey’s federally required general assessment for the 2020–2021 academic year since the state assessment for 2021 was canceled due to the pandemic. All students were expected to take the tests, except newly-arrived English Language Learners and students with cognitive disabilities who qualified for the Dynamic Learning Maps assessment.

According to a state Department of Education memo to districts, the tests were intentionally brief to maximize instructional time. “There were no open-ended questions for math. There was no writing when it came to the ELA portion,” Ruane said.

The assessments categorize results into three performance levels: Strong Support May Be Needed, Some Support May Be Needed, and Less Support May Be Needed.

In the district, 14,246 students completed 29,419 tests or roughly two tests per student. 16,317 tests — or more than half —indicated “strong support” is needed; 7,159 tests indicated “less support” was needed; and 5,943 indicated “some support” is needed.

Students were shown to need the most support in fourth-grade English Language Arts and fifth-grade math.

“We realized that this was the first time fourth graders took a test; before this they were never tested on a standardized test,” Ruane said.

Data from the assessment was broken down into no fewer than 10 demographics: “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Hispanic or Latino,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” “Two or More Races,” “White,” “English Language Learners,” “Students with Disabilities,” and the “Economically Disadvantaged.”

Asian students had the highest rate of students requiring “some or less support,” while students with disabilities had the lowest rate of students requiring “some or less support.”

The results revealed that “strong support” is needed in math for 89.4% of students with disabilities, 82.3% of English Language Learners, 80.6% of Black students, 73.8% of Hispanic students, and 72.2% of economically disadvantaged students, and 54.4% of white students.

In English Language Arts, results show “strong support” is needed in 87.8% of students with disabilities, 85.3% of English Language Learners, 74.8% of Black students, 67.9% of Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander students, 63.3% of economically disadvantaged students,  65.8% of Hispanic or Latino students, and 36.6% of white students..

The full report also includes some data about specific schools.

Ruane said administrators and instructors are using the data in various ways to offer the needed support, including an extended-day learning program known as G.R.A.S.P and a Teachers on Call virtual program.

According to the report, principals had difficulty implementing remedial programs during the pandemic due to “[low] student participation, staff shortages, lack of substitute teachers, quarantined students, and rising COVID cases,” Ruane noted.

She also told listeners the test results are “not predictive” of how students will perform on the 2022 New Jersey Student Learning Assessment.

Black History in Education

Dr. Lillie Johnson Edwards, Professor Emerita of History and African-American Studies at Drew University in Madison, NJ, gave a presentation on ways to teach about the accomplishments by African Americans in the building and development of America.

Johnson Edwards served on New Jersey’s Amistad Commission and co-authored the 2021 Amistad Bill, which requires public schools to include instruction on the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to American society. The bill gives specificity to that directive, Johnson Edwards said, without limiting teachers’ authority in the classroom.

As an example, Johnson Edwards urged the board to take a deeper look into commonly taught milestones of the Civil Rights movement.

“We don’t talk about Rosa Parks as creating the organization that actually became the Montgomery bus boycott by defending black women from rape … by those who assaulted them. Rosa Parks, then, is not only an activist, she actually is an organizer. We don’t typically frame her that way,” said Johnson Edwards.

Johnson Edwards said she appeals to school districts to “encourage your teachers, support your teachers, fund your teachers,” rather than rely on consultants.

“I think the heart of it is the educators in the classroom. You can bring in facilitators and consultants to work with them. But the work really is the work of the teacher in the classroom,” she said.

The professor also noted, “One of the problems we know sometimes happens in the classroom is that African Americans may appear in a lesson here and there and then disappear.”

Johnson Edwards called on the board to make a public commitment to integrating African-American achievement throughout the curriculum via a resolution or other public statement.

In acknowledgement, Acting Superintendent of Schools Norma Fernandez said, “We have done some work, but as with everything in life, there’s always more room to grow.“

Andrea Crowley-Hughes is a writer and media maker motivated by chronicling and sustaining communities. Her reporting on education, sustainability and the restaurant industry has recently been featured...