School Improvement in Maryland


What is Alt-MSA?

“Alt-MSA” is Maryland’s assessment program for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Alt-MSA measures a student’s progress on attainment of Mastery Objectives in reading and mathematics in grades 3 through 8 and 10 and in science for students in grades 5, 8, and 10.

Alt-MSA combines instruction with assessment. Students are instructed on tailored learning objectives, and when the student masters the objective, evidence of mastery is placed in a portfolio.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 requires that all students be assessed and that students receive an individual score in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and a high school grade. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 1997, also requires that states provide an “alternate assessment” when implementing statewide accountability systems. An alternate assessment is an assessment designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to participate in a regular assessment, even when accommodations are provided.

In Maryland, students with disabilities participate in either the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) in reading, mathematics and science (with or without accommodations, as appropriate) or in the Alternate Maryland School Assessment (ALT-MSA), as determined by the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team. The MSA is administered to students in grades 3-8 and 10 and tests students' attainment of grade level objectives in reading and mathematics. In addition, the Alt-MSA measures a student's attainment of science Mastery Objecitves in grades 5, 8 and 10. Students with significant cognitive disabilities who cannot participate in the MSA and the MSA/Science, even with accommodations participate in ALT-MSA. ALT-MSA assesses student attainment of their instructional level reading, mathematics and science mastery objectives that are aligned with grade level Maryland Content Standards.

ALT-MSA Participation Guidelines

The Alt-MSA participation criteria are described below:

Alt-MSA participation criteria. Students with disabilities in grades 3-8 and 10 must participate in either MSA or Alt-MSA. The decision for which assessment is appropriate for an individual student is made by each student's IEP Team. A student with a significant cognitive disability will participate in Alt-MSA if he or she meets each of the following criteria:

  • The student is learning (at emerging, readiness, or functional literacy levels) extended Maryland reading and extended Maryland mathematics content standards objectives.


  • The student requires explicit and ongoing instruction in functional skills.


  • The student requires extensive and substantial modification (e.g., reduced complexity of objectives and learning materials, and more time to learn) of general education curriculum. The curriculum differs significantly from that of their non-disabled peers. They learn different objectives, may use different materials, and may participate in different learning activities.


  • The student requires intensive instruction and may require extensive supports, including physical prompts, to learn, apply, and transfer or generalize knowledge and skills to multiple settings.


  • The student requires extensive support to perform and participate meaningfully and productively in daily activities in school, home, community, and work environments.


  • The student cannot participate in the MSA even with accommodations.

Students not meeting the criteria above will participate in the MSA, with or without accommodations, as appropriate, based on their IEP.