Administrators, staff and parents from Woodbridge met with Harriet Feldlaufer, state Board of Education, last week to discuss the status of its ERG grouping. ERGs or educational reference groups were developed by the state to allow school districts with similar characteristics, such as income level, to be compared. Recently the state determined that Beecher Road School should be changed from an ERG A school, the group comprised of districts with the highest income levels, to an ERG B school. Members of Beecher Road School community have expressed concerns about this plan.

The proposed ERG change for Woodbridge stems from an update that the state undertook based on the 2000 census. ERG level is based on socioeconomic factors (family income, family education, parental occupations) and need factors (single parent families, English as a second language, children receiving aid). These external factors can influence the resources available to students. In an attempt to control these factors, the state developed ERGs so that districts with similar external demographics could be compared to allow for a more accurate evaluation of educational programs. Feldlaufer explained, "(ERG) provides policy-makers with a more insightful picture than a comparison to the state average. ERGs are not used to measure quality, but they might be used to decide where to put extra resources."

Feldlaufer referred to ERGs as a tool to indicate, "What does a district do to increase student achievement, holding other things (like income) constant?"

The only difference between Woodbridge and the remaining ERG A schools, all in Fairfield County, was related to income. Many members of the Beecher community felt that the inflated income in Fairfield County was offset by the cost of housing. Jim Connelly, interim superintendent of Woodbridge, said, "The income was skewed by the New York housing market."

Connelly has been a vocal opponent of what he referred to as the "deportation." He maintains that moving to ERG B "will lower the bar as we compare ourselves to other communities."

Realtors from the area also pointed out that ERG level could affect the real estate market. Nancy Silverstein, a local realtor, said in July, "I can tell you as a real estate agent, being in the A level is a draw for the community."

Other towns faced with ERG changes were disturbed, as well. In fact, 24 districts appealed the re-classification decisions by the state board. Most appeals were denied, including the one filed by Woodbridge. Connelly was frustrated, complaining, "The Department has been tone deaf."

The state was dumbfounded by the public outcry. Feldlaufer commented, "None of us knew how strong a reaction there would be."

Fran Rabinowitz, the associate commissioner of the state board, responded, "ERGs were never looked at as being standards-driven."

Feldlaufer agreed, saying, "ERG level is not an indication of educational quality."

The state board is presently considering what to do about ERGs. After meeting with various educators and parents, it has proposed four possible ERG outcomes: eliminate ERGs altogether, keep the former ERGs, adopt the proposed ERGs, or adopt the proposed ERGs but allow districts to move up in ERG if they wish.

The state board met on Jan. 11 to discuss the future of ERG's. According to Feldlaufer, there was a thorough discussion of ERGs and their purpose. Although there was not full agreement on what to do with these ERGs, everyone agreed that better communication about the nature of ERGs was essential. As Feldlaufer said, "The Department did not do its job initially and later on in communicating about the purpose of ERGs."

Some feel ERGs have no use and should be eliminated, but Connelly said, "ERGs can be very useful for judging student outcomes, available resources and teachers' salaries."

"Educators need to compare districts based on needs and resources they have," said Connelly.

Sheila Salzman, a member of the Woodbridge Board of Education, suggested that things other than money can effect a change in student achievement, like a change in curriculum. "But ERGs don't measure that."

The state is investigating other methods for obtaining necessary data. There are other models being developed that should, in time, supplant the ERG groupings. Feldlaufer prepared a report for Betty Sternberg, state commissioner of education, stating, "(t)he department is moving toward developing a comprehensive data warehouse containing all education data."

Use of this data would allow districts to compare themselves with other districts with similar demographics. Additional data would be available, as well, enabling districts to track the ongoing achievements of students from year to year. Guy Stella, the new Superintendent for Woodbridge, expressed great interest in these future plans. "The greatest implication is moving toward a data warehouse. The real shingle of a school is where a school takes a kid from and then takes a kid to."

Access to this database should be available by 2008, according to Feldlaufer. Once this information can be used, there will be no further need for ERGs.

The State Board of Education will make a decision about the future use of ERG groupings at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 1. It will be held at the Farmington Marriott. For more information, go to the website at www.state.ct.us.