Dear Extra Credit:

As in past years, I find myself studying the Maryland School Assessment Home Report with little understanding of what MSAs really mean and how the standards for basic, proficient and advanced levels are set. A big part of my confusion comes from the use of norm-referenced tests. For my middle school student, the NRTs used were the Terra Nova test in mathematics and the Stanford 10 reading test. The report shows an MSA score for my child and the NRT score.

Is there any relationship between the NRTs and the performance levels for the MSA? I know from experience that a child can perform at over 90 percent on an NRT and be at the proficient level on the MSA. I understand what the NRT scores mean and find them a somewhat useful measure of how my child will perform when we move into SAT testing.

The limited MSA data that I see make me wonder what the Maryland State Department of Education has in mind in setting the standards for our students. For last year's sixth grade, I see that 40 percent of Maryland students were not proficient in mathematics by MSA standards and 29 percent were not proficient in reading. How does this measure relate to the NRT data? Are we aiming at having all of our students above average nationally? (NRT scores of 50 percent or higher?)

I did a quick check of the Maryland State Department of Education Web site and found that the parent handbook on the MSA and High School Assessments programs does not mention the norm-referenced tests, and no data on NRTs are available on the Web site Can you shed any light on what standards Maryland is using to judge the performance of our schools and how it stacks up nationally?

Mary Abe

Silver Spring

Silver Spring International

Middle School PTSA president

I asked Ronald A. Peiffer about your question. He is deputy superintendent in the office of academic policy of the Maryland education department.

Here is some of what he wrote:

"The Maryland School Assessments each include a limited number of items from a norm-referenced test. We included only those items from the NRT that are of good quality and which relate to Maryland standards. . . .

"The No Child Left Behind law requires states to hold schools accountable for those things they teach -- state standards. Hence, the Maryland School Assessment results will differ from the NRT scores, which are not part of our school accountability system. We report results on our state tests, per federal law, as basic, proficient and advanced, with basic meaning essentially not passing.

"The scale scores for each of these three categories are set using the same technical procedure that is used in almost all states for their state tests. The method calls for bringing in teachers who teach at the appropriate grade level . . . and go through a series of exercises to come to consensus on how much a student needs to know to be designated as proficient and then as advanced. Those exercises generate what is referred to as 'cut scores,' meaning that this is the minimum score you need to achieve to be designated as proficient. The same is done at the proficient-advanced 'cut point.'

"Maryland School Assessments are very accurate in measuring how Maryland students are performing when queried on Maryland curriculum. Maryland curriculum is generated by Maryland educators and is reviewed by external groups such as Achieve Inc. using industry-standard protocols. Our curriculum gets pretty good marks for being of adequate difficulty and appropriate for the grade level. The tests are tied to those standards, and we try to give parents the most accurate picture possible of the child's performance based on all of that.

"For the most part, the most accurate measure of a student's performance is the state criterion referenced test, because it is aligned most closely to state standards. However, parents are very familiar with NRTs and percentile scores from their own schooling, and they seem to like having the NRT results for their child.

"In our conversations with parents, we are finding that they increasingly understand that the state test results count for school and school system accountability, whereas the NRT does not. Further, many parents I talk with are seeing that the NRT tells them less than they thought. Because of that shift over time, there may come a time when we no longer administer an NRT in Maryland.

"To the final point, though the NRT is not perfectly aligned to Maryland standards, we find that students who typically perform well on the Maryland test also do well on a norm-referenced test. Therefore, the NRT is not completely without meaning for a parent. With any test score, parents should recognize that a test is a snapshot of a student's performance."