MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt)

Notice of Intent to Apply and Opportunity to Comment on the Department's Waiver Extension Request Related to the Percentage of Students Who Participate in the MCAS Alternate Assessment

To:Interested Educators and Members of the Public
From:Jeffrey C. Riley, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Date:September 5, 2019

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) intends to seek an extension of its existing waiver of the federal requirement that would limit the number of students in the state who take alternate assessments to one percent of eligible students.

The purpose of this notice is to provide you with an opportunity to comment on the request for a waiver by the Department for the upcoming 2019 2020 school year. A waiver of the one percent requirement was previously granted to Massachusetts by the U.S. Department of Education on December 28, 2017 for the 2017-2018 school year, and an extension was granted on February 25, 2019 for the 2018-2019 school year.

Under the requirements of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states must limit the total number of students designated to participate in an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards to one percent of the total number of students who participate in the MCAS assessments. The aim of the legislation is to prevent designation of an excessive number of students with disabilities for alternate assessments, since this may limit access by those students to the full range of academic content standards and could, as a result, delay or prevent them from eventually meeting their state or district graduation requirements. Generally, students with significant cognitive disabilities are administered alternate assessments because they cannot participate in standard assessments, even with accommodations, and are receiving a curriculum that has been modified substantially below grade-level expectations. In Massachusetts, the alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards is called the MCAS Alternate Assessment, or MCAS-Alt.

Participation by percentage of eligible students in the English language arts (ELA), mathematics, and science and technology/engineering alternate assessment during the last three school years was as follows:

  • In 2016-2017, 1.6 percent
  • In 2017-2018, 1.5 percent
  • In 2018-2019, 1.4 percent

As these data indicate, we have made substantial progress in reducing the number of students taking the MCAS-Alt. However, reaching the target set by ESSA (i.e., one percent of eligible students, or approximately 5,000) will likely take several more years. In pursuit of this goal, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has updated and reposted a memo containing guidance and resources on this topic for Massachusetts schools and districts, and will continue to promote awareness of the need for appropriate assessment participation by students with disabilities through statewide training and district oversight.

The U.S. Department of Education is permitting states to apply for a renewal of their "one percent" waivers for the 2019-2020 school year. To be eligible for a waiver, states must demonstrate progress and continued efforts to lower the number of students taking alternate assessments, as well as an overall participation rate of at least 95 percent of students in statewide assessments. The waiver, if granted, will permit Massachusetts to gradually reduce the number of students participating in the MCAS-Alt while continuing to provide oversight, resources, and training to assist IEP teams in making informed assessment decisions for students with disabilities.

We welcome your comments regarding our intent to apply for this waiver. Comments may be submitted via email to until October 4.

Last Updated: September 5, 2019

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