By Dawn Howlen
The first days of school are magical. They bring new hopes and ambitions for a fantastic school year. Students and educators begin to form bonds and relationships that will support them throughout the school year. In one of the schools where I was teaching, my administrator insisted on using the first few weeks not to instruct but to learn more about our students. These weeks were crucial because they allowed me to create a community within my class. It made all the difference as the year progressed and challenges arose.
Last year, this community development was interrupted by the Start Strong evaluation. As the students gathered in my classroom, we went over all the necessary information and instructions, and they took the assessment. Although the assessment is billed as a shorter version of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA), it elicits the same emotions.
The students were anxious, nervous and visibly discouraged. I encouraged them and told them that this assessment did not reflect who they were as a person, but where they were academically at that particular moment. With that, they went ahead and completed the assessment. After all, they would only have to take the assessment once.
To be clear, this wasn’t the only assessment my students took as I collected data and began to get a full picture of the kids who would become “my kids” during the school year. The difference between the Start Strong assessment and the assessments I gave was that I could use the data from my assessments to modify and differentiate the teaching of my students. Unfortunately, I never received the data from the Start Strong evaluation. As a former literacy expert, I know that a good data set is integral to the success of a student, their teacher, and their school. Without it, there can be no real change. It’s like trying to build an airplane without any instruction; it is useless.
Fast forward to September 2022: New Jersey students and educators were greeted with the second mandatory administration of the Start Strong assessment. When the NJDOE released its assessment schedule for the 2022-2023 school year, I was shocked to see the Start Strong assessment on the schedule. After all, it was clear that the 2021 assessment would only be used to report data to the federal government since the NJSLA was not given in the spring of 2021.
Therein lies the problem: the Start Strong was given four months after the NJSLA. As of August 26, Spring 2022 NJSLA data has yet to be added to the NJDOE website, which runs very close to the August 31 start strong 2022 evaluation window opening date. To further complicate the situation, most schools in New Jersey start after Labor Day, a week after the window opens, putting these schools at a disadvantage.
We see issues with the Start Strong assessment that could have been quickly resolved. On the one hand, the window could have been more flexible. This would have allowed students, educators, and school districts to settle into their rituals and routines before being inundated with assessments and school-wide assessment preparations. This small gesture would have removed some of the stress of the “normal” return to school since 2019.
I imagine my former sixth graders settling into their new schools, making new friends, and forming lasting relationships with their teachers. I hope they will remember that they are more than an exam result and that the best way to start the school year is with a strong mind and spirit.
Dawn Howlen is Associate Director of NJEA’s Division of Professional Development and Educational Issues. She can be contacted at [email protected]