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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:Rob Curtin, Chief Officer for Data, Assessment, and Accountability
Date:November 8, 2023

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) 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 DESE for the 2023–2024 school year. A waiver of the one-percent requirement was previously granted to Massachusetts by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017, and waiver extensions were granted each year since then.

One of the requirements of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifies that 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. This legislative requirement is designed to prevent the 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 the most 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 percent of Massachusetts students who participated in the MCAS-Alt (in English language arts, mathematics, and/or science) since 2017 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 canceled 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%
  • In 2021–2022, 1.2%
  • In 2022–2023, 1.2% in English language arts and mathematics and 1.1% in science and technology/engineering

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, DESE has posted 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 2023–2024 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 15, 2023.

Last Updated: November 8, 2023

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Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
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