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New Jersey won’t require tests to graduate or rate teachers on student growth as pandemic rages

The back of the head of a woman wearing a mortarboard with a tassel hanging off the right side.

High school seniors will not need to pass any tests to graduate this year, and teacher ratings will not factor in students’ academic growth.

Sengchoy Inthachack / EyeEm / Getty Images

New Jersey will not require high school seniors to pass any tests in order to graduate this year, and teachers will not be rated on students’ academic growth, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday, nodding to the ongoing disruption of the still-raging pandemic.

Twelfth graders must still meet credit and attendance requirements in order to earn diplomas this year, but they don’t need to pass exit exams, according to Murphy’s new executive order. And teachers will not be rated on student test scores or other academic measures this year, leaving classroom observations — whether in person or virtual — as the sole measure of teacher effectiveness.

“As we’ve said from moment one, this is not a normal or regular school year,” Murphy said Monday. “We have to be more flexible and more understanding.”

The pandemic forced Murphy to make similar changes last spring after school closures canceled the annual standardized tests that students take. Following the rule change, Newark’s unaudited graduation rate jumped to 81% last school year — the highest it’s been in decades, district officials said.

Ten months into the coronavirus crisis, New Jersey students are learning fully remotely in 337 school districts, while they are coming into classrooms at least a few days a week in 430 other districts. 

The evaluation change is likely to come as a relief to many educators, including those in Newark, where the district issued guidelines this fall saying teachers’ ratings would be based partly on students’ improvement on standardized tests. Those “student growth objectives” would have made up 15% of teachers’ overall ratings, which can determine whether they earn tenure or keep their jobs.

Newark teachers raised several objections. They questioned the reliability of online tests that students took from home, and said it was unfair to expect students to make a typical amount of academic progress during remote learning. 

Murphy’s decision settles that argument by removing student academic goals from teacher evaluations this year. The Newark Teachers Union welcomed the change, while also asking for greater flexibility around remote teacher observations — a matter the union has been negotiating with the district.

“A good start!” the union posted on Facebook Monday. “But what about more evaluation guidance? Where is the flexibility and understanding when it comes to teachers?”

Murphy’s executive order also eased restrictions on substitute teachers in response to the nationwide teacher shortage wrought by the pandemic. Now, substitute teachers who are still trying to become certified and those who are teaching outside of their areas of certification can remain in their positions longer.

While New Jersey can lower the stakes of testing, it can’t unilaterally cancel the annual tests that students must take under federal law. The incoming Biden administration has yet to make a decision on whether to require testing this spring, even as advocates on both sides of the issue voice their concerns.

New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, said Monday that the state is moving forward with plans to administer the tests this spring until federal officials say otherwise.

“If there is a change with the incoming administration,” she added, “we will weigh all of our options at that time.”

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