Trump allows states to cancel school testing amid pandemic

The Trump administration announced Friday that states can cancel federally required school testing this year to protect students and teachers, a measure that some states had requested as they shut down schools over the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump also announced that federal student loan holders can get their payments paused for 60 days if they submit a request with their loan servicing company. It adds to Trump's earlier promise to suspend loan interest during that period, which is being done automatically.

In announcing the decision to lift testing requirements, Trump said students have already “been through a lot” this year.

“They've been going back-and-forth, schools open, schools not open. It's been all standardized testing, and you know, we are not going to be enforcing that,” Trump said. “I think probably a lot of the students will be extremely happy.”

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New guidance from the Education Department says any state that submits a “proper request” will be granted a testing waiver for the 2019-20 school year. The agency said states can begin canceling tests now if they decide it's necessary as a safety measure.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said students need to focus on staying healthy and continuing to learn during closures.

"Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time," DeVos said. "Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”

Some governors had asked DeVos to lift testing requirements as they ordered statewide school closures to curb the spread of the virus. Tests in Texas, Washington and some other states had already been canceled as many schools rush to move instruction online.

The federal government's Every Student Succeeds Act requires yearly testing to measure students' progress and to identify any learning gaps among minority students or those from low-income families. The standardized tests span the elementary level through high school and typically begin in April.

State education leaders applauded the Trump administration's move, saying they need flexibility as they prioritize the safety of their students, teachers and families.

“State chiefs strongly believe in the importance of assessments and accountability, but now is the time to focus first on the safety and well-being of all students as educators assist them in weathering and recovering from this national emergency," said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But some education groups cautioned against any widespread testing waiver, saying states can already apply for individual exemptions under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a joint statement, several civil rights and education advocates, including John B. King, a former education secretary under President Barack Obama, said it would be “premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law.”

Trump's decision on student loans goes further than his initial plan to waive interest, but it falls short of requests from some advocacy groups. The Public Interest Research Group said loan payments should be suspended automatically rather than by request, and the group says the suspension should be guaranteed for the length of the pandemic even if it goes beyond 60 days.

“While we applaud the president and secretary for offering much-needed relief to Americans in this public health crisis, their proposal to freeze student loans for two months does not go far enough — and could keep already-stressed borrowers in a place of economic uncertainty," said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director for the organization.

Trump's directive also requires borrowers to make payments if they want to keep making progress in federal loan forgiveness programs.

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Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, for example, certain borrowers can have their debt forgiven after making 120 monthly loan payments. Some Democrats have said borrowers should get credit toward that goal even if payments are suspended because of the virus. But the department's guidance says suspended payments won't count toward forgiveness.

Trump said his administration would extend the 60-day payment suspension if required, and he said there would be further changes to help borrowers.

“That's going to make a lot of students happy,” Trump said of the interest and payment suspensions. “And we have more to come on student loans, more good news for the students. But we will do that at a different time.”