Diane Briars and Pittsburgh Schools Performance on NSMRE

Letter to the Editor
The New York Times

January 23, 2003

Re: "Competition in 1980's Changed the Equation"
by Sam Dillon, New York Times, Jan 22, 2003

To the editor:

The student performance statistics as reported by Diane Briars of the Pittsburgh public schools in Dillon's article is misleading to the point of being snake-oil sales. The examination used in Pittsburgh that showed the dramatic improvement was reported as being the New Standards Mathematics Reference Examination (NSMRE), and that is correct. The problem is that this exam is worthless. Pennsylvania does have statewide testing at Grade 5 with an exam it calls the PSSA. The fact is that Pittsburgh's 5th grade PSSA scores have been declining since 1999 to a point where its district-wide mathematics average in 2002 was well below the 10th percentile among Pennsylvania schools. This is in spite of the fact that these same students were, on average, far above reported NSMRE national averages. For example, a full 20% more 4th grade students met the NSMRE Skills standard in 2001 than nationally.

The problem is that the NSMRE is meaningless as an assessment tool, in part because the national averages are meaningless. Students are allowed the use of their calculators throughout the exam, teachers are encouraged to read the "prompts" (many aren't really "questions", sentence responses are required on most items) to students who do not understand what they have read, and schools spend weeks coaching these written responses using sample booklets that are very similar to those that the students will be seeing on the exam. The "national" averages on the exams were not obtained from students similarly prepared so mean nothing. Perhaps the most stunning is the fact that Pittsburgh's African American 4th grade students in 2001 exceeded the national all-student averages in all three categories, Skills, Concepts, and Problem Solving. One year later, in 2002, some 60% of these same students were in the bottom quartile of Pennsylvania's students according to the PSSA.

Wayne Bishop, Ph D
Professor of Mathematics
California State University, LA

(Return to the NYC HOLD main page.)