Nick Paolini Shares Information on the PSSA Exams

As Pennsylvania’s students sit down to their PSSA exams this spring, there will be a few changes, particularly in the English Language Arts (ELA) for grades 4-8. This year’s assessments are the first to be based on the PA Core Standards (PCS), a “step-up” from the Common Core (CC.) If a state chose to adopt these standards, they had the option to change up to 15%; the Commonwealth elected to do so.

A point of focus within the PCS and CC standards is for elementary and secondary students to develop analytical reading skills. From this concept, emerged a component of the PSSA called Text Dependent Analysis (TDA.) Students in grades 4-8 will experience 2 TDA questions on the 2015 PSSA, one of which will be a field test (will not go toward the score) and one will make up 16 points or 19% of their overall score (PSSAs @ PDE). Students in grade 3 will not see a TDA question, however educators working with K-3 students are strongly encouraged to develop an essential skill required to analyze a piece of text; that skill is called close reading.

Close reading is a buzzword that seems to be thrown around the ELA community haphazardly. What does close reading look like, particularly in an elementary classroom? Dr. Douglas Fisher and Dr. Nancy Frey have studied this concept extensively, its impact as well as how it fits into all disciplines (click here for one study.) In order for a student to provide a proficient response to a TDA question, they must possess close reading skills moving beyond reading comprehension to an evidence based examination of text while analyzing core understandings and key ideas. Students are required to provide a well-written essay with evidence from the text in their response drawing inferences (explicit or implicit) on what the text is saying.


According to Fisher and Frey, there are 5 key features of close reading:

  • Short passages
  • Complex text
  • Limited frontloading
  • Repeated readings
  • Text dependent questions


Elementary educators across the Commonwealth are being tasked to take their students’ thinking to another level. Asking students to regurgitate facts, statistics, details, etc. are no longer acceptable instructional approaches. Analytical thinking based on textual evidence is best practice and there is a place in every discipline and every grade. The example below is a 4th grade TDA question based on an excerpt from “Because of Winn-Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo.


The author of the “Because of Winn Dixie” uses a dog to introduce two people. Write an essay analyzing why “Because of Winn Dixie” is an appropriate title for the passage. Be sure to use evidence from the text to support your analysis.


One of the biggest hurdles I see as a facilitator of TDAs is many educators believe it is something “extra” that they need to prepare their students for encountering; I do not feel that is the case. Proper analysis, accompanied with close reading skills, of an excerpt, a political cartoon, a figure describing photosynthesis, a geometric shape, etc. provides our students with necessary skills to solving problems. As an educator, you can prepare your students to be analytical, deep thinkers. Go forth and do great things!

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