Q. Why assess students with disabilities on the alternate assessment?
A. First, it's the law. Students with disabilities must participate in MCAS in order to assess their performance of skills and knowledge of content found in the state's Curriculum Frameworks. This means students with disabilities must take MCAS tests, either with or without accommodations, or take an alternate assessment if they cannot take the standard tests due to the severity of their disability.
Another reason for requiring the alternate assessment is to measure the academic performance of students with the most significant disabilities. Before 1998, learning was not measured or reported for these students. By taking alternate assessments, students become more visible in their school and have a greater chance of being considered when decisions are made to allocate staff and resources. The evidence submitted in portfolios helps ensure that students with the most intensive disabilities have an opportunity to show what they know and to receive instruction at a level that is challenging and attainable.
Q. Portfolios require some effort. How can teachers manage the portfolio process efficiently?
A. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has made school administrators aware of the need to coordinate this process in schools and to meet regularly with teachers who conduct alternate assessments to identify resources for teachers who need assistance. The Department encourages all adults who work with a student to be involved in developing his or her portfolio.
At statewide teacher training sessions each fall and winter, the Department emphasizes the need for teachers to begin collecting student work early in the school year and to complete all required forms and cover sheets well in advance of the submission deadline. Teachers report that after the first year of creating student portfolios, they find the process much easier, and they develop strategies to organize and manage this task more efficiently. They begin to make alternate assessment portfolios a part of their daily instruction.
Q. How do we know portfolios truly reflect what students have learned?
A. If teachers follow instructions outlined in the Educator's Manual , they can be assured a portfolio will receive the score it deserves based on the evidence submitted. Teachers should become familiar with the portfolio requirements and the scoring rubric in the Educator's Manual to make certain the portfolio samples and data charts are constructed correctly. Each year, written feedback is provided directly to the teachers who created the portfolios. This feedback is intended to encourage and assist the teachers to improve the portfolios the following year.
Q. Why not use a different set of standards for these students?
A. One reason to include students with significant disabilities in standards-based instruction is to explore their capabilities. Performance expectations for these students have traditionally been quite low, and data on their performance have only been collected since 1998. Although life skills are critical for these students to function as independently as possible, academic skills are also important. Learning standards are defined as "valued outcomes for all students."
All students are capable of learning at a level that engages and challenges them. Teachers who have incorporated learning standards into their instruction cite unanticipated gains in students' performance and understanding.
An additional advantage to using this approach is that some social, communication, motor, self-help, and other daily living skills can be addressed during activities in which learning standards are taught, as outlined in the Department's Resource Guide to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for Students with Disabilities.
Q. Why is the passing rate low for students taking the alternate assessment?
A. Beginning with the class of 2003, all students without exception were required to earn a score of Needs Improvement or higher on the grade 10 MCAS tests in ELA and Mathematics as one condition for earning a high school diploma.
Massachusetts is one of the only states that allows students who take alternate assessments to meet the graduation requirement, but only if they score Needs Improvement or better.
It is true that each year, only a few students score sufficiently well to "pass" the alternate assessment and meet the state's graduation requirement. Since 2001, about 300 students taking the MCAS-Alt have met the state's graduation requirement. As students gain greater access to academic instruction, and teachers document their students' performance more effectively, this number may increase. However, the number of students achieving a score of Needs Improvement on the MCAS-Alt will likely remain low in relation to the number of students who pass the standard grade 10 MCAS tests.