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Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System

Important information about the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

This memo updates the important information and resources originally posted in March 2017 that will help districts make decisions about assessment of students with disabilities in light of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which went into effect in the 2017-2018 school year. Thank you in advance for carefully reviewing the materials attached to this memo, as well as the information presented below.

ESSA and Alternate Assessments

ESSA states in part that

…a State may provide for alternate assessments aligned with the challenging State academic standards and alternate academic achievement standards…for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, if the State…ensures that, for each subject, the total number of students assessed in such subject using the alternate assessments does not exceed one percent of the total number of all students in the State who are assessed in such subject

….." States that adopt Alternate Assessments based on Alternate Achievement Standards must create a "definition for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities …which addresses factors related to cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior…"

ESSA also requires that parents/guardians of students with disabilities who take alternate assessments be clearly informed as part of the IEP process that

  • their child's academic achievement will be measured based on "alternate achievement standards;" and
  • participation in an alternate assessment may delay or otherwise affect their child's completion of the requirements for a diploma.

ESSA also requires that districts address any disproportionality of students in any subgroup taking the alternate assessment, per 34 CFR 200.6(c)(4)(iii)(B)

To assist districts in administering the MCAS-Alt appropriately and effectively to students with significant disabilities, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) has attached the following materials:

  • guidance and a decision-making tool for assigning students to take alternate assessments where appropriate
  • data on 2017 through 2022 MCAS-Alt participation in each district, including the number and percent of students in all grades, and in each subject
  • a sample parent notification letter that may be copied onto school or district letterhead that must be sent to parents of students taking the MCAS-Alt
  • a training presentation that can be used to train IEP teams on an annual basis

Determining Which Students Should Be Alternately Assessed

Massachusetts defines "students with the most significant cognitive disabilities" are students who demonstrate all four criteria:/p>

  1. have cognitive disabilities evidenced by significant delays in attaining age-level academic achievement standards, even with systematic, extensive individually designed instruction, related services, and modifications; and
  2. have cognitive disabilities that significantly impact their educational performance and ability to apply learning from one setting to another; and
  3. require extensive, direct individualized instruction and substantial support to achieve measurable gains on the challenging State academic content standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled; and
  4. perform significantly below average in general cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior. This is defined as a student functioning two or more standard deviations below the mean on commonly accepted norm-referenced assessments in both cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior (e.g., two or more adaptive skill areas such as daily living skills, communication, self-care, social skills, and academic skills).

ESSA also requires that districts address any disproportionality of students in any subgroup taking the alternate assessment, per 34 CFR 200.6(c)(4)(iii)(B)

ESSA mandates that the State monitor and offer technical assistance to districts over the one percent cap. Each year the state must request a waiver extension if our projection is over the one percent cap.

Copy of Waiver Available and Language That States District Justification Letters Are Available Upon Request. Email

Request for District Calculation of MCAS-Alt Participation

Districts should examine the data provided as an attachment to this memo and anticipate the percentage of students that will be designated by IEP teams in their district to take the MCAS-Alt in the current school year. Note: "Grade-level" and "competency" portfolios do not count in the district's total of students who take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards.

  • IEP teams will receive the annual training described above.
  • The district will collect, disaggregate, and review the MCAS-Alt participation rates for students within the following subgroups: male, female, English learners (ELs), African-American, White, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and economically disadvantaged. Districts are encouraged to review the available data found found in the attachment to this memo and in the Department's School and District Profiles. If the district determines that disproportionality exists, the district must develop a plan that includes professional development for staff who make decisions during IEP team meetings regarding assessment participation for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Students who take the MCAS-Alt will continue to receive instruction in the general curriculum beyond what is necessary to collect materials and data for the student's MCAS-Alt.
  • Students with significant disabilities who are performing at or near grade-level expectations, but who are unable to demonstrate knowledge and skills on a paper- or computer-based test, even with accommodations, will be considered for a "grade-level" or "competency" portfolio.

If you wish to review DESE's waiver or a district's justification and statement of assurances, please contact Student Assessment by email or phone at 781-338-3625. Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.

Last Updated: September 20, 2023

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