The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) measures elementary, middle and high school students' educational understanding against the state's learning standards. Starting in third grade, Pennsylvania students take these annual exams in reading and math, with writing and science added on in later grades. The scores don't count towards the students' overall grades, although they are used by schools for curriculum planning and improving the quality of instruction.

Performance Levels and Cut Scores

The PSSA identifies a student's performance in terms of four different levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient or Advanced. Cut scores are the numbers that the state uses to place students in corresponding level groupings. There is no one cut score for each level of the PSSA; instead, the state provides individual test and grade level cut scores. Interpreting the data means reviewing the current cut scores, referenced by the subject matter test and student's grade. For example, a proficient score in math for a third grader is between 1180 and 1369, but a proficient score for a sixth grader is between 1298 and 1475.

Level Descriptors

When scoring the students for performance level placement, the PSSA data is placed up against state descriptors. The descriptors, as the name implies, describe what a student's test results say about his ability to correctly answer test questions. These, like the cut scores, are different for each grade and type of test. For example, the fourth grade Basic level math description includes items such as calculating elapsed time, identifying properties of geometric figures, recognizing symmetry and completing a data display.