ACT State-Specific Cut Scores and Performance Level Descriptors


Starting with the 2017-18 school year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states greater autonomy and flexibility over standards, assessments, and accountability systems—including the possibility of using a national admissions test, such as the ACT® test, as the high school accountability measure for Math, English Language Arts, and/or Science.

There are many benefits for states that want to use national admissions tests for federal accountability, including reduced testing time (since the ACT is already administered in many states) and having a nationally recognized predictor of college readiness to support students as they exit high school and prepare for broad national opportunities for college and career, but there are tradeoffs to consider in any assessment program used for federal accountability.

ACT has supported states that administer the ACT for accountability purposes by providing sound, research-based methods for establishing relevant state-specific cut scores and performance level descriptors (PLDs), employing panels of state educators, subject matter experts, and other appropriate stakeholders in standard setting and performance level descriptor writing activities. Next, we briefly describe our recommended method for establishing cut scores—empirical-based standard setting (Camara, Allen,& Moore, 2017)—and for developing custom performance level descriptors.

State-Specific Cut Scores

Judgment is part of any standard setting. ACT’s recommended empirical approach centers that judgment on appropriate outcomes (e.g., first-year credit-bearing college course grade), criteria of success (e.g., earning a grade of a B or higher), and the probability of success (e.g., 50%, 60%, 70%). ACT has supported states in assembling appropriate panels of stakeholders to consider, deliberate, and ultimately recommend the outcomes, as well as the criteria and probability of success that are reflective of the state’s educational goals. In addition, the consideration of state-specific impact data (the percent of students in each achievement level defined by cut scores) supports informed decision making. A more detailed analysis of this approach to standard setting, and how the resulting high school cut scores can be linked to cut scores of accountability assessments in lower grades, is provided in Camara, Allen, & Moore (2017).

State-Specific Performance Level Descriptors

ACT’s content experts can facilitate the development of state-specific performance level descriptors reflecting the state-specific cut scores by assembling a diverse panel of state content experts who:

  1. Review items and writing samples that reflect the attributes of examinees in each performance level
  2. Develop empirically-based PLD statements that reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities of students in each of the state’s performance levels.

ACT’s content experts can develop preliminary PLD statements, which the state’s panelists then review and revise for clarity of wording, progression of knowledge and skills across performance levels, and completeness of coverage of the state standards. Our process for supporting the development of state-specific performance level descriptors is facilitated by experts with broad experience in developing PLDs and employs well-established methods commonly used across the country to meet such accountability requirements.

ACT Research and Test Development staff have extensive experience supporting states in establishing state-specific cut scores and performance level descriptors for the ACT. Additional information is available upon request.