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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:November 5, 2021

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 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 students who take the general MCAS tests.

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 2021–2022 school year which will be submitted later this fall. 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; waiver extensions were granted on February 25, 2019 for the 2018–2019 school year; on January 2, 2020 for the 2019–2020 school year; and on September 8, 2020 for the 2020–2021 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 (i.e., the MCAS-Alt) to one percent of the total number of students who participate in general state assessments. The aim of the legislation is to prevent designation of an excessive number of students with disabilities for alternate assessments, since this may lower academic expectations unnecessarily and limit access by those students to the full range of grade-level academic content standards. As a result, this could delay or prevent those students from eventually meeting their state or district graduation requirements. Students with significant cognitive disabilities receive an academic curriculum that has been substantially modified, and they are administered alternate assessments because they cannot participate in standard assessments, even with accommodations. A waiver, if granted, means the state has continued to move closer each year to the one-percent threshold, although it has not yet reached that goal.

The number of Massachusetts students who participated in the MCAS-Alt (in English language arts, mathematics, and/or science and technology/engineering) compared with the number who took the general MCAS assessments during the last five school years is shown below:

  • In 2016–2017, 1.6 percent
  • In 2017–2018, 1.5 percent
  • In 2018–2019, 1.4 percent
  • In 2019–2020 (estimate), 1.35 percent would have participated in the MCAS-Alt if the spring 2020 MCAS and MCAS-Alt administrations had not been cancelled due to extended school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Projection based on district pre-enrollments and pre-orders of materials.)
  • In 2020–2021, 1.3 percent

As these data indicate, Massachusetts has made steady and substantial progress in reducing the number of students taking the MCAS-Alt. Reaching the one-percent threshold set by ESSA, however, will likely take several more years. In pursuit of this goal, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has posted 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 2021–2022 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 maintain an overall high overall participation rate 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 December 1.

Last Updated: November 5, 2021

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