John King’s Place in NYS History

I don’t know the man. Never met him, never worked for, near, around, or with him. I’m a non-parental taxpaying New Yorker who works in education.

I do, however, know some folks have really strong opinions about him. I also know he’s up to be our next Secretary of Education. The combination of these two things – strong opinions and the pending nomination – means of flurry of pieces about why he’s not fit for the job or to provide a context about who he is. My SEO game isn’t exactly all that but I want to offer this up to the void in case people are looking for how to frame his term as NYS Commissioner of Education in the big picture of history – specifically New York State’s standards and testing system for students in Grades 3 through 8. The history of our high school exit exams, known as Regents, is its own adventure.

Except for those statements which are opinions, I double-checked the content against memos found on the New York State Department of Education website, Wikipedia (sorry, Mr. Russell – my HS history teacher who hammered the importance of primary documents into my brain), and other people who have been talking tests with me since back in the day. Any inaccuracies are oversights on my part that I’m happy to fix. Please note that I’ve been editing the text periodically as I find new information or catch errors. Finally, there are several different stories one could tell when writing a timeline. Running concurrent to the one I sketched out is one tracing accountability measures (SINI, AMO, etc), creation of cutscores and equating, Regents requirements, and personnel changes. I’ll defer to others for those through lines.

The New York State Department of Education Building in Albany, NY (credits)

It all began back in 1789… and we can skip about 200 years of education in New York State to get us to Goals 2000, etc. etc. and all the things happened in the 80’s on a  national scale that served to kickoff the modern “reform” era. Yadda yadda yadda. We’re on the brink of Y2K. Richard Mills is the Commissioner of Education and has been for four years. He will be Commissioner until 2009. The primary method of communication between Mills and the field is through his representatives in the field, BOCES District Superintendents. S/CND exists as “an operational arm of [NYSED’s] Offices of Curriculum and Assessment” which supports the implementation of Regents, and thus NYSED, policy in the field.


  • NYS students start taking Math and ELA tests in 4th and 8th grade. The tests are published by CTB-McGraw Hill and replace the PEP test in Grades 3, 6, and 9 which had been around in some form since 1966. They also replaced a 5th grade Writing test that had been around for a few years.
  • These tests are aligned to standards adopted in 1996 and are clustered in grade bands (Elementary (K-4), Intermediate (5-8), and Commencement (9-12)).
  • Test scores are used by Mills to identify SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) schools and high performing schools. At this point, there is no federal directive for testing, only the NYS Commissioner’s Regulations Part 100 dictating test policy.
  • NYS tries to get an art performance-based assessment off the ground. The project would remain on the back burner but wouldn’t be forgotten. It was dusted off in 2014 and appears ready for a resurgence with the new graduation requirements.


  • Social Studies tests in 5th and 8th grade are added to the calendar. These were a part of a Goals 2000 project that in part, wanted to bring the thinking students needed for the Regents and AP exams down into the younger grades. (This is when the term DBQ arrived in NYS schools. Long live the Document-Based Question.) Teachers, including Native American History teachers had a role in designing the initial tests.

2001 to 2004:

  • NCLB is passed. Let the work begin.
    • Step 1: Break the standards down so they’re grade-level specific.
    • Step 2: Start to design new tests.
  • Mills continues to use 4th and 8th grade Math and ELA  scores to identify schools.
  • Revised Science tests are added in 4th and 8th grade. Though the Science test previously existed, this new version is heftier. Used by NYS as the third indicator for accountability under NCLB, they include a performance component, multiple choice questions, and some writing.

2005 was a flurry of activity. Field testing for 3-8 tests begins using a process that’s been around since, well, almost the beginning. For reasons that have to do with decisions around printing, NYS does stand-alone field testing. In 2005, this made sense as there were no operational 3-8 tests in which to embed the items. Stand alone field testing has been an albatross of epic proportion in the recent testing era. Finally, these tests served as a transition between the 4th/8th state accountability system and the 3-8 federal accountability system (similar to the tests of 2012).

Meanwhile, NY releases updated Math standards. They include “bands and strands”, a framework not unlike the CCLS content standards and Mathematical Practices. This work includes creating “core curriculum guidance documents” which advise districts on how to attend to the standards in their curriculum but it isn’t full on “print this out and go teach” curriculum. The names of those who did this work appear to be lost to history or escape my googling. The roll out is a small team from NYSED who presented at regional meetings and conferences.

Sample tests are released, giving the field a sense of what to expect with the new 3-8 tests. David Abrams, Assistant Commissioner from the Office for Standards, Assessment and Reporting and Jean Stevens, Assistant Commissioner from the Office of Curriculum & Instructional Support present to S/CDN on the nature of the new tests. Members take that information back to their districts.

2006: NY starts using the 3-8 tests for NCLB purposes. Just like that, thousands of children who had never taken state tests before were suddenly taking them. If “Opt Out” existed, it was highly local and not on any radars that I could find. To be sure, it wasn’t a smooth transition. Every scoring site had a story to tell. My favorite was about the sleep deprived principal who mislabeled a box and accidently sent student answer booklets to be shredded, instead of extra test booklets. The system, though, adjusted. Newspaper editors had something new to talk about that year and kicked off the trend of ranking schools by scores into high gear.

Time between the policy change of NCLB and changes to the tests? Five years.

2007: Still Mills. Still no Opt Out.

2008:  The state starts to prepare for revisions to the ELA standards as the previous work was less about a quality process and more about attending to the mandates of the new federal law. I attended one of the regional forums and tweeted my observations. This was also the time when NY created the New York State Student Information Repository System (SIRS). Those of us who lived through the creation of the Level 0, 1, 2 warehouse were likely among the first who clamored for a system that supported interoperability; a system that would manifest in the form of InBloom (RIP). The vast majority of school districts had (and still have) student management systems that were cobbled together, a node at a time. Getting those systems to work together sometimes meant exporting, converting, importing, and hoping. A staggering amount of time was spent by educators – from commandeered classroom teachers to school secretaries – on verifying that data in the warehouse were accurate. To this day, I am confident there are schools with state report cards from this period that reflect the waving of a white flag rather than accurate data.

2009: NY sets aside standards revision work to collaborate with other states. Mills, the then Governor David Paterson, and the Board of Regents made the decision Common Core was the right move for NYS. Mills retires.

2010: New York State adopts the Common Core Learning Standards. There was a comment period, there were teacher work groups, and additions to the CCSS, mostly in ELA, mostly around choice, creativity, and culture. The inclusion of culture is likely a nod to the standards under discussion in 2008 and 2009. Those literacy standards had been a joint ESL/ELA endeavor with an explicit culture strand and the nature of the culture standards in the CCLS appears to echo that strand.  David M. Steiner is now the Commissioner.  NY, under Steiner, applies and receives the Race to the Top grant.

In 2010, NYSED eliminated several tests from the testing calendar. At the elementary and intermediate level, it was Social Studies 5 and 8 tests that got the honor of fading away into history.

NYS joins the PARCC consortium as a Governing State. This is perhaps an indication that NY will switch away from homegrown tests to a national consortium. It’s also an indication of NYS long-standing desire to be in the room. I mostly assume to keep an eye on Massachusetts. People who were previously not aware of the flow of curriculum adoption in New York State (for good, bad, or indifferent) are increasingly a part of the conversation via social media.

2011: The state tests are still aligned to the sunsetting NYS standards. To support the field around the new standards, the state does something unprecedented – it uses funds from Race to the Top to pull together hundreds of educators from across NYS to provide explicit professional development in the new standards. This. Had. Never. Happened. Before. These forums, known as Network Team Institutes (NTI)  were a mixed bag. Yeah! Hundreds of NYS educators in the same room! Boo! Hundreds of adult learners in the same room! There were kinks, there were bumps, but everything shared is available to the public.

The new Commissioner King gave the opening plenary at one of the sessions. He is the state’s first African-American and first Puerto Rican education commissioner.

To help the field understand how the Common Core tests will be different, they release “Sample Tests.” Despite multiple notes and notations that the items are not what students will see, word begins to spread on social media that 3rd graders will be reading Tolstoy.

2012: NYS administers its first round of Common Core state assessments, working with a new publisher, Pearson. A combination of old standards and new, it was a transition year which meant it was field testing CCLS items for 2013 and items aligned to the older standards. This is similar to the transition year back in 2005.  This quirkiness combined with increased social media usage by parents and teachers, created the perfect storm that resulted in Pineapple-gate; a social media fury around an item that wasn’t a Common Core one, but an operational item from Pearson. NYS had historically quietly loaded technical reports around the state tests on their website without much fanfare. The climate around the 2012 tests brought them to a wider audience and expanded the conversation around test design.

It was also the year that “adapt, adopt, or ignore” became a mantra around the Common Core curriculum that NYS provided through NTI and a new website called EngageNY.  Like NTI, this was unprecedented. Never before in the history of the state had NYS offered or endorsed math or ELA curriculum that included detailed lesson plans and resources. Some districts ignored them and wrote their own. Some took pieces and parts. Some treated them like scripts. Opt Out as a concept begins to pick up steam in NYS suburbs.

2013: The Common Core tests arrive in full technicolor. The field noticed for the first time that NYSED had stopped releasing entire tests, this likely happened in part to allow for cheaper tests that re-used items and to quell the use of old state tests as test prep curriculum pre-2009. At the same time, the teacher evaluation system known as APPR kicked in.

Time between a commitment to the Common Core and the new tests? Four years.

What happened between 2013 and King stepping down as Commissioner in 2015 is skewed by recency bias. Those telling the story of that period are likely a part of the history and remember events from their  perspective. Some watch him at the forums and call him unresponsive. Others see a man keeping his emotions in check. Some of those who sat in the audience to share their opinions with him appear to see a man who “jammed reforms down NYS throat” (a popular phrase at forums) and refused to bend, despite calls to the contrary. Those who have sat on the floor with him in classrooms, report that he gets *it*. He gets how important education is, how hard teachers work, and that school can save a life. Some want to believe he ignores. Other says he listens. He reportedly used an analogy about building a plane in the air and others report he was always willing to talk one on one with teachers in schools he visited.

There are legitimate reasons for why Obama moved to appoint King now. One of them is pending higher education reform. Another is to give King time to create the conditions to ensure some initiatives, like My Brother’s Keeper, endure through the election. Insisting that King isn’t right for the job because of a particular take on events has its pros and cons. It’s difficult to say that he didn’t handle change right when he followed a time frame that had seemingly worked for his predecessors and offered more explicit support to the field than it had ever been offered before.

I offer up this history to share the flow of patterns and to hopefully set King’s tenure in the larger picture of his immediate predecessors.

There’s a lot more I could write about NYS reform  – about schools who didn’t accept a false dichotomy and made school a joyful place during the transition and continue to do so every day. About the need for something like InBloom as data management is messy and hard to get right. About the tensions around adults evaluating the quality of tests based on their gut response to them. That’s neither here nor there. I’ll leave those stories up to future fellow history and assessment nerds.

A note regarding comments: I’ve left comments open as I’ve already learned about three tests I hadn’t discovered in my noodling. I have decided to not publish comments at this time.

My utterly useless ability to remember dates and events related to data and tests – if my memory failed and I got something wrong, please let me know
The NYSED website – the Regents boards minutes and meetings are useful and interesting
EngageNY, which has really upped its game and search engine
This comprehensive timeline in a document by NYSUT (page 24)
This helpful timeline by NYS ASCD

Related posts:
The Pineapple question and item difficulty
A 4-part series on looking at 1 set of standards versus 50 sets

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