On July 9, 2015, the State Board of Education raised the bar significantly higher for student achievement by approving new, more rigorous cut scores and performance level descriptors for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) in grades 3-8 for English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics.

The new scores are effective immediately and as applied to the 2015 round of testing recently completed, show large percentages of students reaching only basic and below basic achievement, especially in math. State Board members voiced concerns regarding the consequences, policy implications and public perceptions of student achievement surrounding the new scores, and passed an accompanying motion calling for the Department of Education (PDE) to “swiftly engage in deliberative communication with diverse stakeholders regarding the revised PSSA, the impact of more rigorous academic standards and the effect on revised cut scores and performance level descriptors.”

The new cut scores were necessary because the nature and structure of the PSSA has changed significantly this year to align to the PA Core Standards. They were developed in June by two panels using the Bookmark Standard Setting process that was jointly conducted by PDE and Data Recognition Corporation, the testing company responsible for the PSSA. The first panel was comprised of 58 educators who given an order-item booklet, with one test question per page and placed in order from easiest to hardest. These Bookmark Participants reviewed each question and placed bookmarks on the pages where they believed showed the dividing point between each of the four performance levels. After three rounds for each grade and subject, their judgments were then converted to a set of cut points based on the group median. Then a Review Committee comprised of district and building level administrators met to review the Bookmark Participants’ recommendations. The committee made some adjustments and determined the final recommendations that were presented to the State Board. In addition, two external validators observed the process. The performance level descriptors are a text explanation of what it means to be at Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic performance levels for each grade in ELA and math.

The State Board held a lengthy discussion prior to adoption of the cut scores. Members expressed concerns with cut scores that translate into high student failure rates, particularly with math. They also noted lower scores may be expected occur as schools, students and teachers adjust to newly revised academic standards, curriculum and tests, and that results will improve over time. Other concerns were expressed with how the testing data is used in part to determine School Performance Profile scores, teacher evaluations, accountability ratings under the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver, and other measures. Members agreed that PDE must put supports into place for schools so that students can reach the higher targets. In addition, members said that PDE must clearly communicate to stakeholders and the public that the high bars set are goals and should not be construed as failure of public education as the transition to the PA Core Standards continues. For these reasons, the board adopted the motion that accompanied the approval of the cut scores.

New Cut Scores for the Mathematics PSSA, effective 2015
(with the percentages of students who reached these performance levels in 2015)

GradeBelow BasicBasicProficientAdvanced
 
3
 
600-922

27.9%
 
923-999

23.6%
 
1000-1109

28.5%
 
1110 and above

20.0%
 
4
 
600-907

24.7%
 
908-999

30.8%
 
1000-1106

27.5%
 
1107 and above

16.9%
 
5
 
600-900

25.8%
 
901-999

31.4%
 
1000-1112

27.4%
 
1113 and above

15.4%
 
6
 
600-896

25.0%
 
897-999

35.2%
 
1000-1104

28.5%
 
1105 and above

11.3%
 
7
 
600-903

33.3%
 
904-999

33.6%
 
1000-1108

23.5%
 
1109 and above

9.6%
 
8
 
600-905

37.3%
 
906-999

32.8%
 
1000-1107

21.9%
 
1108 and above

8.0%

New Cut Scores for the English Language Arts PSSA, effective 2015
(with the percentages of students who reached these performance levels in 2015)

GradeBelow BasicBasicProficientAdvanced
3 600-904

13.3%
905-999

24.6%
1000-1142

49.1%
1143 and above

13.0%
4 600-886

12.8%
887-999

28.6%
1000-1106

37.0%
1107 and above

21.6%
5 600-892

13.2%
893-999

24.8%
1000-1138

44.2%
1139 and above

17.8%
6 600-874

9.8%
875-999

29.4%
1000-1114

39.5%
1115 and above

21.3%
7 600-844

6.2%
845-999

34.9%
1000-1129

41.9%
1130 and above

17.0%
8 600-885

10.5%
886-999

31.2%
1000-1129

43.8%
1130 and above

14.6%

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