An Interview with Marilyn Burns: Informal Math Inventory

Feb 13, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) I would like to ask you about this new math assessment program called “Math Reasoning Inventory”. First of all, who developed it?

I developed MRI ( along with a team of passionate math teachers and authors from Math Solutions ( Through my experience as an educator and author for 50 years, I’ve learned that the best way to find out what students understand about math is through one-on-one interviews. With funding from the Gates Foundation, I was able to develop this formative assessment tool for teachers, and make it available free of charge.

2) How is it different from an Informal Reading Inventory>

MRI is similar to IRIs in that it consists of individually administered assessments designed to evaluate a number of different aspects of students’ performance. MRI consists of three assessments― whole numbers, decimals, and fractions―and focuses on students’ numerical reasoning, addressing math skills and understandings. MRI differs from IRIs in that the questions are questions that the Common Core expects all middle school students to answer successfully. Along with a face-to-face interview (about 10 minutes), students also complete a short written computation section (4 problems).

3) Who is supporting this endeavor?

The development of MRI has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their U.S. programs to improve education so that students are college or career ready. Scholastic Inc. is making the MRI online assessment tool available for educators.

4) Now, what is this Math Solutions I hear about? Is it a book, a C.D. or some on line program?

Math Solutions is not a book, CD, or online program. It’s a professional development organization that I founded in 1984 to improve the teaching of mathematics. Math Solutions provides services and resources to teachers, schools, districts, state departments, and other educational agencies across the country ―we’ve published more than 80 books and resources to help improve teachers classroom math instruction. Math Solutions Education Specialists are master teachers committed to helping teachers prepare their students for success in math.

5) What ages and grade levels is this for?

As requested by the Gates Foundation, MRI asks students questions that the Common Core expects all middle school students to be able to answer successfully. The assessment is appropriate for students in grades 4 through 8, and can be useful for older students who are in need of intervention.

6) Very difficult question, but one that requires an answer- IF the MRI is a formative assessment, what do teachers do when , for example student transfers into a 6th grade class and they can only do third grade math? Do teachers send them back to the third grade?

MRI helps identify the specific reasoning strategies and understandings that students need in order to be successful in middle school math and beyond. The reality is that intervention is essential for students who enter middle school woefully behind. Schools deal with this problem in various ways, one of which is to provide intervention instruction to students in addition to their participation in grade-level math classes. While MRI is a formative assessment tool, the MRI website suggests a variety of instructional solutions to meet students’ mathematical needs.

7) How can you ensure that students have a deep, comprehensive understanding of math? I have taken trigonometry, but I am not sure that I completely understand the math behind it.

Your situation is not unique. I openly confess that when earning my university degree in mathematics, I memorized many theorems, corollaries, and lemmas without completely understanding what I was studying. It was this experience that led me to make the commitment that in my classes, students would be encouraged to make sense of mathematics at all times. I have dedicated my 50-year career in education to breaking the notion that “yours is not to question why, just invert and multiply.” At the same time, I understand that helping students develop a deep, comprehensive understanding of mathematics relies largely on the effectiveness of teachers, which is why I founded Math Solutions. Now I have developed MRI as another tool for helping teachers focus on how their students reason and to give teachers specific information about the reasoning strategies and understandings that students need in order to be successful in algebra and beyond.

8) Where can interested others find out more information?

The development of MRI includes a robust website ( where teachers can find information about preparing to use MRI, get tips for giving MRI interviews, watch more than 80 video clips of actual interviews, view sample MRI reports, learn about the reasoning strategies students need to be numerically proficient, and more.

9 ) What have I neglected to ask?

Here are some questions that others have asked:

How much does MRI cost? Developed under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MRI is available free of charge to all teachers. All teachers have to do is visit the MRI website, sign up for an account, and begin using the tool with their students.

Why does MRI involve a face-to-face interview, instead of having students answer the questions online? Just as assessing reading calls for listening to students read and explain the meaning of what they’ve read, assessing math deserves the same. Too often, paper-and-pencil tests are used as the primary measures of students’ math proficiency. But many students can perform procedures yet have little understanding, as you described with your trigonometry experience. The MRI interview is essential for helping teachers find out what their students really understand about math.

Some middle school teachers teach 100 or more students. How can these teachers find time to interview all students? What teachers can do is to interview a sample of their class, choosing a range of students who are strong, average, and struggling, and get a sense of the range of needs in their class. Also, MRI is effective for identifying the specific needs of students who would benefit from intervention.

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