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Biden Campaign Won't Commit to State Testing Waivers During COVID-19 Crisis

BidenSpeech.JPGIf elected, would former Vice President Joe Biden let schools off the hook for administering federally mandated standardized tests this year? 

A policy adviser was noncommittal on the issue Thursday, saying such a decision would be left to Biden's transition team and to a new administration.

"The honest answer is this is an important question a Biden-Harris transition team would have to look into," Biden Policy Director Stef Feldman told a virtual panel held by the Education Writers Association. "In some ways, the answer to this question depends on how much progress we can make in supporting our schools and getting them up and running."

The statement comes after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told state education leaders in September not to expect additional testing waivers during the 2020-21 school year if President Donald Trump is reelected.

It also comes after a 2020 campaign in which Biden has repeatedly expressed skepticism about standardized tests and using their results for high-stakes purposes. That may have led some to assume he would be more open to waiving the testing requirements for an additional school year. 

Feldman was reluctant to clarify a few other key campaign pledges during a question-and-answer session with education reporters Thursday. For example, Biden has previously pledged to appoint someone with "public school teaching experience" as education secretary, seeking to draw a contrast with DeVos. Feldman would not say Thursday if "public school experience" could include people who've taught at public colleges and universities.

"The vice president hasn't gone beyond saying it will be a person with public school experience, so I will leave it at that," she said.

She also addressed the candidate's positions on charter schools, accountability, and school funding.

Schools and Testing During COVID-19 Pandemic

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law, requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. After initially resisting broad waivers from that requirement after schools closed in March, DeVos later allowed states to opt out when it was clear few, if any, schools would reopen for in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

Some school leaders, and education officials in states like Georgia and Michigan, have advocated for testing waivers for the current academic year. It may be logistically difficult to administer state tests if rolling school closures continue into 2021, they've argued. And the school year has had unprecedented conditions for all students, regardless of whether they've learned online or in-person.

But advocates for continued state testing say the results are necessary to monitor students' progress. Two years without such data would make it even more difficult to hold schools accountable and to direct efforts to get students back on track as the nation eventually pulls out of the pandemic, they've said. States have already warned of a "COVID slide" in academic achievement and of students who are repeatedly absent from online and in-person classes as their families grapple with joblessness and lack of child care.

The issue doesn't cut neatly across partisan lines.

"There is broad and consistent support for assessments because there is general agreement among the public that a student's achievement should be measured, that parents deserve to know how their children are performing, and that it should be no secret how a school's performance as a whole compares to other schools," DeVos said in her September letter.

Some congressional Democrats—like House education committee chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Senate education committee ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash—have also stressed the importance of continued state testing. 

But some state chiefs, even elected Republicans, have said testing is not realistic this year.

Feldman's answer seemed to pivot back to the core of Biden's plan for reopening schools, which focuses heavily on providing more resources through a large federal aid package. That would help pay for materials like plexiglass dividers and masks, she said, and it would also help schools with adequate staffing do things like reduce class sizes and provide added supports to students who've dealt with interrupted education.

Asked if a Biden administration would put any additional pressure on schools to reopen their buildings, or provide any incentive for them to do so, Feldman said those decisions would remain in the hands of local decisionmakers. 

Biden's school reopening plans call for clear, objective federal guidelines that are sensitive to the rate of virus transmission in the local area. He has criticized the Trump administration for a lack of clarity on the issue and for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's refusal to reimburse schools for protective gear like masks.

"President Trump seems to think this isn't an emergency, but Vice President Biden thinks differently," Feldman said.

Ambitious Funding Plans

Though she stressed that Biden's education plans are unique to him, Feldman rejected opportunities to draw daylight between Biden and former President Barack Obama on issues like charter schools and accountability. Obama took some actions to encourage the growth of charter schools and the adoption of more-rigorous state learning standards.

Biden's plans, on the other hand, call for new federal restrictions on funding for "for-profit charter schools" and other efforts to rein in the sector.

The Biden plan "prioritizes investing in our public neighborhood schools," Feldman said in a response to a question about the differences. "Those are the schools that educate the vast majority of our students in this country, and there is a vast deficiency between the funding they need and the funding they have."

Biden has called for tripling Title I funding that supports educating students from low-income households, "fully funding" the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including schools in a broad federal infrastructure package, and additional federal COVID-19 relief.

Those ambitious proposals would rely in part on changing tax law for high earners, requiring support from Congress. Could he get it done?

"We are confident that Vice President Biden, if elected, would be able to get some big, bold education legislation passed," Feldman said.

Photo: Former Vice President Joe Biden --Getty Images


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