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State Assessment Performance Level Descriptors and Cut Scores

NCLB requires all states to (a) develop standards, (b) develop assessments which measure the standards, and (c) define performance levels, i.e., Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. In defining performance levels, states must define these levels both in narrative form and in numerical form. The Performance Level Descriptors (or PLDs) are the narrative description of the skills and knowledge that students must demonstrate in order to reach each performance level on the PSSA. The PSSA Performance Level Cut Scores are the numeric definition of the performance levels.

A Brief History...

On June 30, 2005, the State Board of Education adopted Performance Level Descriptors and authorized Performance Level Cut Scores for Grades 3, 5, 8, and 11, as shown below. The cut scores are the result of a validation study approved by the State Board last year for the following reasons:

  • The PSSA Assessment Anchors were developed since the original scores were established.
  • The reporting categories, for which information would be provided, were reduced from 11 to five in Mathematics and from five to two in Reading. This change enabled the test to be more reliable and valid without increasing the length of the test.
  • Grade 3 cut scores had to be established.
  • New assessments were being developed for Grades 4, 6, and 7, and the necessity for smooth transitions from grade level to grade level in the cut scores was recognized.
  • The HumRRO validity study conducted at the direction of the State Board of Education indicated the cut scores should be reviewed for refinements.
  • State Board of Education regulations require periodic review of the performance level cut scores.

The process used for this validation was a modified Bookmark. In this process, Pennsylvania educators used an ordered item booklet with the items from the 2005 assessment listed, from easiest to the most difficult based on students' responses. Performance Level Descriptors, newly written and adopted on June 30, were also used. After several rounds of placing bookmarks at the borderline between Below Basic and Basic, Basic and Proficient, Proficient and Advanced, followed by discussions, the final recommendations were developed. The recommendations, along with statistical interpretations and variations, were presented to the State Board for action resulting in the cut scores below.

On June 29, 2006, the State Board of Education adopted both the Performance Level Descriptors and the PSSA Performance Level Cut Scores for Grades 4, 6, and 7 in Mathematics and Reading and Grades 5, 8, and 11 in Writing. These grades are not included in the AYP calculations for 2006. However, Grades 3-8 and 11 Mathematics and Reading will be included in AYP calculations for 2007.

At a special public meeting held June 15, 2007, the State Board of Education approved new PSSA Performance Level Cut Scores for the 3rd grade. The Performance Level Cut Scores in Reading and Mathematics for Grade 3 were developed on account of a change in the Department's assessment contractor and refinements made to the test designed to improve its alignment with the assessment anchors and PSSA Reading and Mathematics Tests administered in Grades 4 through 8 and 11.

On September 18, 2008, the State Board of Education approved the PSSA Performance Level Descriptors and Performance Level Cut Scores for Grades 4, 8 and 11 Science. The Science Cut Scores may now be accessed in the charts below, and the Science Performance Level Descriptors may now be accessed by clicking on the link below the charts.

On July 1, 2010, the State Board of Education approved the PSSA-M Mathematics Performance Level Descriptors and Performance Level Cut Scores for Grades 4 through 8 and 11. The PSSA-M Mathematics Cut Scores may now be accessed in the charts below. The PSSA-M General Performance Level Descriptors and PSSA-M Mathematics Grade-Specific Performance Level Descriptors may now be accessed by clicking on the link below the charts.

On June 26, 2011, the State Board of Education approved the PSSA-M Reading and PSSA-M Science Performance Level Descriptors and Performance Level Cut Scores. All PSSA-M Cut Scores may now be accessed in the charts below.

PSSA and PSSA-M Performance Level Descriptors

Grade and Subject Specific Performance Level Descriptors

PSSA Mathematics
PSSA Reading
PSSA Science
PSSA Writing
PSSA-M Mathematics