State Board of Education Grapples with Controversial Start Strong Assessments and Certification Code at August Meeting

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By Debra Bradley, Esq. NJPSA Director of Government Relations 

The lazy, hazy days of summer seemed finished for sure as the State Board of Education held its August 3 meeting yesterday for about seven hours.  Typically, a light agenda is set for August, but this meeting focused on the initial discussion of a mammoth code proposal that addresses the professional learning standards, educator preparation program requirements, certification rules for all school positions, professional development requirements, TEACH NJ requirements and procedures, and more.  Additionally, the controversy of the recent and unexpected announcement that the Start Strong assessments would be required in all school districts was also proactively raised by State Board Member Joe Ricca as New Business.  

Over the next eight months, the State Board of Education will be reviewing, analyzing, considering public input and ultimately adopting changes to the code that determines how educators are prepared, mentored, licensed, developed on the job professionally, evaluated, and what professional standards guide these decisions.  The NJDOE presented its initial proposal of these extensive code changes to N.J.A.C. 6A: 9, 9A, 9B, and 9C to State Board members, apparently after only providing the changes to the State Board several days before the meeting.  State Board President Kathy Goldenberg requested a prompter presentation of these materials moving forward so the State Board has ample opportunity to review these important proposals.

NJDOE Chief of Staff Julie Bunt and her team did the extensive presentation to the Board, working through each section in detail.  With goals of ensuring each student access to a well-trained, effective educator, ensuring diversity and increasing the supply of teachers in hard-to-fill positions, the Department proposed these changes, among many others:

  • Amendments addressing legislation that has been enacted since the code was last adopted including issues of the computer science endorsement, revised substitute credentials, instructional certification in Autism Spectrum Disorder, alternative measures of basic skills for CTE teachers, revised requirements for school nurses, reciprocity rules for military spouses and across states, and early college high school certification pathways;
  • Definition changes;
  • Educator Preparation Program Review language changes;
  • Revised options for instructional candidates to demonstrate core competencies;
  • Modified pathways for teachers in high need areas (Science/Math add-on endorsement created, Speech Arts and Dramatic Arts Endorsement deleted, deaf and hard of hearing requirements and more!)
  • New requirements creating a bilingual language paraprofessional credential. 
  • New professional learning requirements for educational interpreters (PDP) and preschool paraprofessionals; and 
  • Increased teacher mentoring frequency. 


Start Strong Discussion

Following this discussion, State Board member Joe Ricca, a superintendent of schools, made a policy report which included significant questions for Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan about the value and purpose of the sudden state mandate to administer the Start Strong assessment in September.  Ricca raised significant questions that echoed the questions raised and sentiments expressed by NJPSA members at our recent NJPSA Roundtable Discussion on Assessment on July 28th.  These include:

  • Concerns about why the NJDOE did not consult with the field before unilaterally deciding to mandate Start Strong statewide this Fall, when educators, parents, students and the school community had been told that this assessment was only required last year for federal accountability purposes;
  • Questions about why districts who have strong benchmark assessment systems in place, which include early school year assessments, could not seek a waiver or consider Start Strong as optional;
  • Questions about why the testing window has been significantly shortened when last year the window ran through mid-October.
  • Questions about the relative usefulness of the data, including the facts that districts have not yet received the NJSLA results which tested similar material and the NJDOE delivery of the data to educators is not timely or in a format that is not user-friendly;
  • Questions about the quality of the data received and taxpayer cost;
  • Concerns about the local burden this sudden mandate imposes through impacts including a significant shift in personnel from early school year relationship-building with students and parents, a redirection of local resources, new scheduling burdens, and the lack of summer staff to perform this necessary data input and test administration work; 
  • The lack of NJDOE timely communication to the field and ultimately to parents about the purpose, need and usefulness of this assessment, especially at a time when the social-emotional needs of students are paramount; and 
  • Concerns that there was little consideration of the negative impacts of this assessment at the school and student level before a decision was unilaterally made.

Commissioner Allen- McMillan thoroughly responded to these issues with her perspective and rationale for mandating the Start Strong assessment:

  • Due to the pandemic’s impact on learning, there is a state responsibility to gather more data points on interrupted learning and learning growth statewide and Start Strong offers such a data point on priority standards.  Its purposes include a measurement of “summer slide” to some degree, individual student growth in learning from the beginning of the year to the end, and the provision of information to districts so districts can provide  feedback to the NJDOE on how the Department can help;
  • Local benchmark assessments vary and not every district has these assessments in place;
  • Start strong offers the benefits of providing real time data (same day) to teachers for use at the start of the school year, as well as providing information to students and parents;
  • Start Strong also helps New Jersey look longitudinally.  The NJDOE needs to ensure that we are using our federal funds to put the best programs in place supported by data. As a state, we need to pinpoint the needs in all groups and Start Strong data last year helped us identify gaps and shifts in employing technical assistance and our work with associations. 
  • Start Strong administration for a second year gives New Jersey the beginning of a longitudinal data point, which will be continued with the second-year resumption of the NJSLA in the spring of 2023.  If we do not administer Start Strong, we will have to wait another year to receive results that can be used in such a way. 
  • While admitting that she did not know why the field received late notice of her decision, she acknowledged that feedback from the field, through the county offices, had made it to her desk.  The pandemic has caused this Administration to modify its goals of trimming back state assessments, due to the need to address the interrupted learning statewide.  The quicker results of Start Strong add a new dimension of information to the field that she believes is helpful;
  • Last year the testing window was extended to mid-October because of the need to allow time for students reacclimate to the learning environment. With this period behind us, she believes that the assessment becomes less relevant and helpful the further one gets into the school year.  
  • The inclusion of seniors in the assessment is important in her mind because she believes that learning has not ended until they graduate.  The teacher is still responsible for their learning during their senior year, and we are all responsible that they graduate college and career ready. 
  • The cost of the Start Strong assessment is $5,300,00.00 which was largely funded through a set aside from federal pandemic funds. This year, the State had to supplement the federal money with $300,000.00 of state funds.  

What is Next?

NJPSA is in the midst of an association-wide review of the proposed code.  NJPSA established a Certification code committee in January to gain member feedback on the numerous issues impacting the shortage of staff in the certification code.  Ron Durso, a Bergen County science supervisor chairs this committee and invites all interested members to join this committee for this important discussion!  

With respect to Start Strong, NJPSA is submitting our member questions and recommendations to the NJDOE that were so eloquently stated by participating NJPSA members at the July 28 Roundtable on Assessment.  

NJPSA’s Government Relations Department urges you to get involved in these important issues as they develop.  Simply reach out to Debra Bradley, Esq., Government Relations Director or Jennie Lamon, Assistant Director to discuss how you can join the conversation!  (; )