Standardized testing and other “high-stakes” examinations are notorious for their impact on students’ mental health. Stress, fatigue, sleepless nights, anxiety, mood changes, and many other symptoms are a common sight before or during the exam period. However, the consequences associated with standardized testing are not limited to students. Teachers, administrators, and parents all feel the weight of the anticipated results.
The knowledge of performance, placement, or entry exams lurking is more than enough to change the whole dynamic of the classroom and even affect the productivity and effectiveness of the lecturers. The high expectations from parents, teachers, and society are felt even if they’re not verbalized. So, what can we do to help students feel more confident and ready when the assessment period comes?
While the nature of these assessments can’t be changed, what can be changed is the way these tests are perceived. Teachers can help students prepare, build mental resilience, and minimize stress.
To help you achieve that, today, we’ll break down the NJSLA - The New Jersey Student Learning Assessment. We’ll discuss some useful tips and share valuable learning resources, but first, let’s see what the NJSLA entails.
What Is the NJSLA?
The acronym NJSLA stands for New Jersey Student Learning Assessment - a series of tests that aim to check the readiness of K-12 students for college or pursuing a career in three distinct units. The NJSLA is part of the federal statewide assessment requirement for English language arts (ELA), mathematics, and science. This means that it’s mandatory in all districts within New Jersey.
The units are thematic sections that the assessment covers. The NJSLA is designed for three disciplines: ELA, mathematics, and science. Each discipline is usually tested through several units, depending on the students’ grade, and each unit lasts 45 to 60 minutes. Of course, there might be slight variations from year to year, so it’s best to check the NJSLA’s official website to make sure you’re up to date with the current assessments, regulations, and requirements. For instance, due to the pandemic, the 2021 NJSLA assessments were administered with more flexibility and a changed schedule.
The goal of the NJSLA is to keep track of whether students’ performance is satisfying educational standards. In other words, this is one way in which the state can control the quality of education and compare students’ progress in different schools across the state. Even though the method is not without its flaws, it is important because it maintains the reliability and validity of the educational system.
A Little Bit of Background
New Jersey began with statewide testing requirements in the 1970s. In the beginning, these tests aimed to assess basic skills. However, after the No Child Left Behind Act in the 90s, New Jersey’s yearly assessments were changed to represent academic standards.
The NJSLA-ELA and NJSLA-M that test for ELA (English language arts) and mathematics respectively, replaced the previously well-known PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment. On the other hand, the NJSLA-S that tests science skills replaced two previous assessments: NJASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) and NJBCT (New Jersey Biology Competency Test).
Today, in the spring, New Jersey’s students are given up to three exams - NJSLA-ELA, NJSLA-M, and/or NJSLA-S, depending on their grade level.
What to Expect From the NJSLA?
To know how to prepare students for the NJSLA, you need to understand not only the content scope, but also the environment, setting, rules, structure, format, timing, and other factors specific to the NJSLA.
Let’s start with the testing window. The date and time depend on the school, type of test, and grade. However, each discipline is usually divided into two or three units per grade, and the time allocated for each unit is around 45 to 60 minutes. This brings the total time to around 180 minutes per student.
Typically, the test is computer-based, but there are exceptions for students with disabilities. The format of the computer-based test depends on the subject, but there are multiple-choice questions, drag and drop, choosing from a drop-down menu, filling out a table or a word, and more. This means that, aside from knowing the materials, students need to be somewhat tech-savvy. They need to be able to quickly and efficiently navigate through the electronic version of the test and clearly understand how to successfully save an answer, move forward, or go back to correct an answer.
For these reasons let this be our first piece of advice: When preparing students for NJSLA, start from the technical and seemingly trivial functionalities. In a very stressful environment, students do not need the added distractions of now knowing how to utilize the test’s features.
Fortunately, the NJSLA offers practice tests on their website. As a teacher, open and carefully analyze the platform and the format of the questions. This will allow you to prepare students better and make them more confident by knowing exactly what to expect when they log in.
Needless to say, the second aspect that shapes expectations are the results. In other words, to better prepare students for what’s coming, give them an answer to the following questions:
- How is the test graded?
- How heavily does it impact the students’ academic position and future?
- How can students interpret the results (what’s exceptionally great, good, and bad)?
- Can students fail?
In 2019, the NJSLA published a comprehensive score interpretation guide for NJSLA-ELA and NJSLA-M. The purpose of the guide is for both parents and teachers to be able to fully understand the individual student reports (ISR).
To put it simply, every student will receive an ISR (individual student report) with scale scores, performance levels, and subclaim performance indicators. There will also be scores that indicate the state, district, and school average scores for each subject that help parents better understand how their child compares to other students in their school and other schools in the state.
Individual Scale Reports
When it comes to the scale scores included in the reports, they range from 650 to 850 for all grades (NJSLA-ELA and NJSLA-M). However, they may be divided in different categories for more insights. For instance, the ELA tests have separate scores for reading and writing. All the scores, minimum and maximum, are indicated in the report.
The performance level is a very broad categorical scale based on the students’ overall score. The performance level is represented by a description that explains whether the student met academic expectations for their grade. In the NJSLA, there are five performance levels:
- Level 5: Exceeded Expectations
- Level 4: Met Expectations
- Level 3: Approached Expectations
- Level 2: Partially Met Expectations
- Level 1: Did Not Yet Meet Expectations
In the guide we've linked above, there’s a detailed explanation of what each performance means when it comes to students’ readiness to progress academically.
Finally, the NJSLA also includes a so-called subclaim performance scale that indicates how students performed in each subclaim area.
Discussing the results of the NJSLA is a very important step when preparing students for the exam. Knowing how the test will be graded and how the results will look, helps soothe their anxiety and subjective feelings of readiness.
That being said, discussing results is still a very sensitive topic that needs to be handled carefully. Make sure you explain to students that the test, while important, reflects their effort, not their worth. In other words, receiving a bad result doesn’t mean that the student lacks knowledge or didn’t study hard enough. The test is imperfect and many things can skew the results. Many gifted students sometimes get lower scores simply because of performance anxiety or other factors not related to their actual knowledge.
The key is to balance these two sides - the importance of the test with the imperfections in the process. Hopefully, this will help students manage expectations and build psychological resilience.
Tips to Excel the NJSLA
Once you cover the technical aspects of the test and help students better understand the importance and meaning of state assessments, it’s time to give them advice on how to tackle the subject material and excel the exam.
Tip #1: Test-Taking Is a Skill
We briefly mentioned this before, but let’s elaborate. The first thing students need to understand is that test-taking is a skill - not a mirror that reflects their absolute knowledge and intelligence.
You can explain it by saying that the score of the test encompasses their knowledge, skills, familiarity of the format, tech-abilities (not related to the course material), mental state, concentration, and even their mood.
The test aims to assess their knowledge and skills only, and if all the other factors were in an optimal state, then the score may reflect that. However, that’s almost impossible, which is why we must recognize these disruptive factors and try to minimize their influence.
To give you an example, having eaten and having slept for 8 hours, especially before the exam, are the two most underestimated tactics for doing well on a test. Both of these factors can increase mental clarity, concentration, and improve memory.
While the above-mentioned factors relate to self-management, there are also content-related strategies and techniques that increase students’ test-taking abilities.
Take, for example, the strategy of scanning the whole test before one starts to answer. For some people, this is a great way to manage time as they can quickly answer all of the questions for which they have no doubts, then move over to those that are more time-consuming. For others, this may be a source of anxiety. It’s a very personal tactic, but one that illustrates how students can become better at taking tests over time.
Explore different ways in which students can improve their test-taking abilities and encourage sharing successful tips and tricks among students which, needless to say, don’t involve cheating.
Tip #2: Effective Time-Management is Crucial
The second tip we want to share when it comes to preparing for the NJSLA is teaching students effective time-management skills. Typically, children, and especially teenagers, will underestimate their need for preparation for the exams.
Encourage students to start early because practice makes perfect. Repetition aids learning almost effortlessly. This means that simply reading the material two to three times a week for one or two months - without trying to remember - will be more effective than reading it five times in one day in desperation to retain as much as possible for the text the next day.
Plus, students can come up with strategies where practicing for the upcoming exam at the end of the year doesn’t take too much of their day (example: only half an hour a day from the beginning), so there’s no resentment or frustration.
Tip #3: Different Practicing Techniques Suit Different Personalities
Teach students how to learn effectively by knowing themselves and their learning preferences. Practicing for a test doesn’t always have to be sitting over a book and reading the material over and over. Honestly, there are no limitations to how we learn.
Indeed, today, gamified and game-based learning are two awesome practices that redefine the way we see education. Students can fall in love with studying if they find a way to learn on their own terms - something that’s very personal and subjective.
Some students who are visual learners might learn best by watching a movie or a documentary. On the other hand, this might not be effective for other students who might learn better through quizzes, friendly competitions, challenges, or even through playing a game. The legendary speed geography game is a perfect example of how we can learn without actually feeling like we’re studying.
For these reasons, one of the best ways to prepare students for the NJSLA is to help them find a fun way to practice and learn.
Tip #4: Group Support Makes All The Difference
One of the worst feelings before an exam is thinking that you’re alone in feeling insecure, scared, or anxious. Most of the time, students want to put up a brave face and pretend that the assessment means nothing to them. “I’m too cool for school” is an attitude that a lot of the time is rooted in fear that students do not want to confront. On the other hand, some might actually want help but are too shy to ask.
In any case, setting up a support group is a great solution. You can add students to an online community, such as a Facebook group or a Discord channel, where students can share notes and thoughts, tips, ask questions, share news, and simply encourage and support each other.
You can also allow students access to a study room after classes for those who want to practice together.
There’s only one thing you need to be careful about here. The nature of the groups should be constructive and encourage learning, stimulate students’ curiosity, and strengthen their academic passions.
Tip #5: Access to Information Should Be Easy
Another thing to consider when preparing students for the NJSLA is access to information. Ask yourself: Do all students have equal access to all practice materials and learning resources?
Setting up support groups or online communities where students can share information is a great way to make sure they all have equal opportunities for learning. However, that’s just one channel of communication, and honestly, it’s the bare minimum teachers can do to support their students.
First, teachers can send emails with links to all learning and practice resources to all students and their parents. Second, teachers should share all resources publicly on the school’s online platform. Third, teachers can print information sheets and divide them among students to make sure that even those without internet access have access to all resources and practicing material. Beyond this, teachers should provide alternatives for students with disabilities or those who can’t afford the materials. To give you an example, having the materials in the library or available for free from the school’s computers is one solution.
If you were wondering where you can find high-quality practice and learning materials for the NJSLA, we’ll share some valuable sources in the last section of this article, so keep reading.
Tip #6: Stress Is Students’ Number One Enemy - Sleep Their Best Friend
Finally, you can prepare students by teaching them how to manage stress and foster productive habits that will help them obtain better scores.
Performance anxiety or exam anxiety is very real and scary. It can seriously deteriorate students’ mental and physical health, but also negatively affect their cognitive function. This means that if students can’t manage the anxiety before examinations, they are practically sabotaging themselves and performing sub optimally - claims that are supported by science.
For these reasons, it’s very important for schools to offer psychological counseling or for teachers to show kids some stress management strategies or techniques, so they can learn to better cope with the challenges ahead of them.
To learn more about the topic, you can check out this comprehensive guide from Brown University. They share valuable tips on how students can manage stress and anxiety before or during an exam. Additionally, several studies look at new technologies and coping mechanisms that might be beneficial solutions for handling exam-induced stress.
NJSLA Learning Resources and Practice Tests
If we consider the fact that test-taking is a skill that can be learned and having access to information is vital, then giving students high-quality learning resources and opportunities for practice tests is one of the best ways to make sure they’re prepared for the assessment.
Even though “test prep” doesn’t have to dominate your classroom this year, as a teacher, having the right learning resources can help you create formative assessment strategies for the school’s curriculum that’s in alignment with the NJSLA. This way, you’ll be preparing students without them even being aware, which provides them with a much more relaxed environment.
So, where can you find the right learning resources for the NJSLA?
- NJSLA for Science Website - the most comprehensive source for manuals, documents, tutorials, information guides, and test simulations for the NJSLA-S exam.
- Inspired Instruction's Resource Library - offers lesson plans, templates, resources, and activities for all grade levels, aligned to preparing students for success on the NJSLA.
- Dr. William H. Horton - Elementary School’s Website - offers students learning resources and computer-based tool navigation that help them familiarize themselves with the NJSLA exam. They also have tutorials for math, ELA, and science, as well as sample questions in all question types included in the NJSLA.
- TIme4Learning’s Software - test simulations based on typical standardized tests and material most commonly used in state examinations.
- State of New Jersey - Department of Education - the most reliable source for NJSLA preparation. It includes key dates, news, rules, regulations, information brochures for different districts, schools, parents, and more.
Of course, you can always enrich your practice with useful YouTube tutorials, forums, and other online communities where people share their experiences, offer advice, and even have developed specialized courses that prepare students for standardized testing, such as NJSLA. One example of the aforementioned can be found here: NJSLA 2020-21 Blueprint and Best Practices | 10 Min. webinar organized by EdShorts.
NJSLA, like many other state assessments, can cause stress for both students and teachers. All of this can negatively affect students’ performance not only on the day of the examination, but throughout the whole year as well. The teacher-student relationship might suffer because of this and the whole classroom dynamic can easily be disrupted.
To prevent this, teachers must find a way to prepare students for the NJSLA - emotionally and intellectually - all without negatively affecting the learning of the material encompassed within the regular school’s curriculum. It’s a difficult task, but one that can be successfully mastered, especially when you have the right guide to rely on.
We hope that our article provided you with some helpful resources and useful tips.. We were careful to include all the aspects that you need to cover when preparing students for the NJSLA, while focusing on the key elements that truly make a difference. Of course, every student is different and not everyone will embrace the process. Our final advice is to be patient and flexible. Personalize your approach when consulting students with different personalities.