New York's education department heard a round of criticism from educators and throughout the state after the recent state testing period—from students being tested on untaught material to the fatigue they experienced after hours taking the exams.
In response, New York State Education Commissioner John King, who toured Bedford Central's schools on Tuesday, said they were committed to having the tests be a useful tool as a part of how schools and teachers think about their effectiveness.
He said factors affecting testing this year included a change in the test vendor [to Pearson PLC], increased scrutiny on the tests because of the new teacher evaluation system and a shift in the tests' format, which created more time for students to complete the exams but impacted school scheduling.
King also said testing was affected by the , adopted by the New York State Board of Regents last July. The goal is to have tests that align to the Common Core to give educators information on students' college and career readiness.
Next year's exams will be improved, he said.
"New standards are going to present new challenges. Some of the questions were designed to field test these standards, and teachers have spent more or less time on those new standards depending on where they are in the transition process," said King. "So you have a confluence of issues but certainly there are things we have learned."
The commissioner was invited to visit the district by school board president, Susan Wollin, who serves on the state school board association.
King began his visit at with members of the Bedford school board, MKES Principal Sue Ostrofsky and the districts directors of special education and early childhood education. He then headed to the and campus.
Bedfore heading to the high school, he observed a middle school math class and Italian class. Language teacher Celia Ecker asked her students why they were studying the language and the class enjoyed a light-hearted moment with King when sixth grader Erin Strange said she learned so she could travel.
"My Dad said if I learned how to speak Italian we could go to Italy and I could translate—so I'm all in it for the trip," she quipped.
King commended the district on the job they were doing and said he was impressed with the diversity of the district and the thoughtful interactions teachers have with the range of learners. On the property tax cap, he said it's been a challenge for school districts to figure out what choices to make in a restrained fiscal environment.
"In Bedford, I'm impressed with the board and how thoughtful they have been in the commitment they've made to professional development and helping teachers and principals continue to get better at their work," said King. "Despite the difficult fiscal environment they are not cutting back on those resources."
Superintendent of Schools Jere Hochman said King seemed genuinely interested in listening to the district's board members and and administrators on an array of topics including professional development, curriculum, the new teacher and principal evaluation system, and unfunded mandates.
"I was pleased with how eager he is to hear the outcomes and effects of State initiatives on a school district, a school, and in the daily world of children," said Hochman. "What was reinforced for me in the visit and a common theme he heard is the need for routine communication from the State Education Department and from him what the “whole picture” of reform is. It is too easy for isolated pieces to gain attention and to be taken out of context instead of people focusing on the larger systemic picture and all the connections."
And overall, Hochman said, it's a pleasure to "show off" Bedford Central's students.
"There is a perception outside of Westchester as to who we are and what we are all about," he said. "To see how inclusive our schools are, how diverse our schools are, and how we work to provide the best program possible for all learners is an eye opener for those who only have an external perspective."