A new report finds New Jersey students have fallen behind in math and language arts at alarming rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic and says most of them aren't expected to meet grade-level benchmarks this year. 

The nonprofit JerseyCAN projects almost two out of every five students—about 143,000—who were meeting grade-level standards in language arts are no longer on track to fulfill them. The numbers get worse in math, where half of students—about 129,000—meeting grade-level expectations are no longer expected to do so. Black and Latino students are falling the furthest behind, while Asian students actually saw an increase in proficiency, the data show. 

The limited study is based on data from 15 school districts and charter schools for about 8,250 students in grades 3 through 8. JerseyCAN did not release the names of participating schools citing confidentiality agreements but the organization said it weighted the data to reflect the student population across the state. It didn’t pinpoint specific reasons for the learning loss but did recommend New Jersey implement robust summer programming and boost tutoring, particularly as schools get ready to receive $636 million of federal stimulus dollars.

Governor Phil Murphy has left it up to school districts to decide whether to offer in-person, remote instruction or some combination of both but has said he expects all students back in class by the fall. Murphy said this month 108,000 students are fully back in class, while about 900,000 are enrolled in districts offering at least some in-person instruction. Another 317,000 students remain learning entirely remotely. 

Senator Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said she's pushing a bill to require all schools to implement a summer school program to help kids catch up.

"To ensure that we see some uniform approach that every single district is providing some kind of avenue for students who are falling behind, an opportunity to get their bearing before they return to school full time in September," she said during a briefing on the report on Monday. 

Only one-third of New Jersey students in grades 3-8 will be on track to be proficient in english language arts and one-fourth are on track to meet expectations in math should statewide assessments be administered this year, the report found.

New Jersey obtained a waiver from the federal government to skip its statewide standardized tests known as the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments last spring. The state has again applied for a waiver but it’s unclear if the Biden administration will cancel the exams. 

Without data from the statewide exams, JerseyCAN used two other assessments to compare student achievement to 2019. 

“We felt it was important to use real New Jersey students and real New Jersey data to tell the story of where our students are,” said Patricia Morgan, the executive director of JerseyCAN. “Without knowing the problem you are solving you can’t meaningfully solve for it.”

Among other findings, the report said Black students lost an average of 43% in expected learning in language arts this year and 50% of learning in math, based on assessments. Latinx students lost 37% of expected learning in language arts this year and 40% in math. 

“This data perhaps not as severe would have looked similarly pre-COVID,” Ruiz said. “Learning loss is not something new to some communities, it’s something that we’ve always had to grapple with.”