The Commissioner responds …

I just received this letter from the Commissioner. He tells me that the law does not allow him to exempt my daughter and he responds to the issue of self-evaluation. It is interesting he does not respond to other issues, just those where I am in error. I have removed my daughter’s name, otherwise his letter, as received.


I am writing in response to your recent communications with the Department regarding your daughter. Thank you for talking with me yesterday. I know that you have expressed a number of concerns, and I understand, based on the many documented exchanges with the Department, that they center around two issues. First, you have requested that your daughter not be assessed by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Second, you have questioned whether it is appropriate to require severely disabled students, such as your daughter, to receive instruction based on the standards in the curriculum frameworks.

With respect to the first issue you raise, I understand that you would like your daughter not to be assessed on the MCAS. As members of my staff have informed you, and as I indicated in a statement issued to the press in June, all students educated with public funds, without exception, must be assessed by MCAS in accordance with state and federal law. As we have shared with you, if a student has a disability, the student’s IEP Team determines whether it is most appropriate for the student to participate in the standard MCAS test (with or without accommodations) or in the MCAS-Alt, an alternate assessment process for students with disabilities, particularly students with severe cognitive disabilities. The MCAS-Alt is based on a body of student work (portfolio) collected by the student’s teacher throughout the course of the school year.

It may be helpful to understand the purpose of the laws requiring the assessment of all students, including students with severe cognitive disabilities. The legal requirements underscore the importance and intrinsic value of educating all students, irrespective of disability. The law also ensures that schools are accountable for providing all students access to the academic curriculum. In keeping with these laws, MCAS testing is intended to ensure that all students are provided access to the general curriculum and have the opportunity to improve their skills in the content areas. MCAS results allow administrators, educators, and parents to see what students have learned and to set goals for students. Nearly 8000 students statewide, most of whom have significant cognitive disabilities, participate annually in the MCAS-Alt; among these are students with severe communications disorders.

In your letter and in our telephone conversation, you referred to Massachusetts regulation 603 CMR 30.03(3)(b) as the basis for requesting a waiver of the MCAS requirement for your daughter. This regulation has been cited out of context. The regulation refers to the legal authority of the commissioner to allow a student in the class of 2010 to be assessed in a high school science content area later than grade 10 in cases where a student transfers to a Massachusetts public school district after grade 10 or cannot be tested in Grade 10 due to illness. I can confirm that I, as commissioner, have no authority under state or federal law to exempt a student who is educated with public funds from being assessed on MCAS.

With regard to the second issue you raise, I understand that you believe that, due to the nature and severity of your daughter’s disability, it is inappropriate for your daughter to receive instruction based on the standards contained in the curriculum frameworks. As my staff has shared with you, state and federal laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that all students be provided access to and the opportunity to make progress in the general curriculum. In addition, you may be aware that the Department has created a guide to the Massachusetts learning standards specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities. This guide outlines tasks and activities at varying levels of complexity in each content area, and includes skills appropriate for students with even the most severe disabilities. Special educators have used this guide as the basis of instruction for their students, as well as for compiling their MCAS-Alt portfolios. In response to your concerns regarding the “self-evaluation” component of the MCAS-Alt, I want to reassure you that this component is optional, as outlined in the MCAS-Alt Educator ‘s Manual posted to www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/alt/edmanual.pdf.

The Department has been in touch with Superintendent Bill Lupini about your concerns. I encourage you to work with the superintendent and his staff to determine the most appropriate and effective strategy for delivering academic instruction to [your daughter].

I recognize that you have been disappointed and frustrated by the information Department staff has provided to you. While I acknowledge your disappointment, I fully support the integrity and accuracy of the information provided to you by members of my staff, especially MCAS-Alt Coordinator Nancy Hanson, and stand behind the professionalism and time that Nancy and others have given in their interactions with you.

I trust that you will work with Brookline school officials to construct a solution that is responsive to the requirements of the law and meets [your daughter]’s educational needs. I appreciate your understanding that, unless new substantive developments occur in this case, or current federal and state laws and regulations are amended as they relate to this case, I consider this matter closed.

I offer you and [your daughter] my best wishes.

Sincerely,

Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education

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