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Status Symbols

Connecticut rethinks wealth-based groupings

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Connecticut is considering whether to discontinue what many education leaders in the state see as a symbol of another era: a classification system that lets school districts compare themselves with others with similar socioeconomic conditions.

Since 1989, Connecticut has put each of the state’s 169 districts into one of several groups based on such census data as poverty rates and parents’ education levels. Called Education Reference Groups, or ERGs, the categories run from the letters A to I, with A being the most affluent.

ERGs have no real policy consequence. They’re meant to help districts examine how their resources and achievement levels stack up against districts facing the same challenges. The problem, many now say, is the ERGs may also signal that districts needn’t strive for the same goals.

“If an unintended outcome of this grouping is to lower expectations, then I’m not interested in doing that,” said Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty J. Sternberg.

Ms. Sternberg began weighing the future of the ERGs in recent weeks after circulating a proposed update of the groupings based on more recent census information. About two-dozen districts would change ERGs with the revisions.

Leaders in some districts slated to go from A to B expressed concern that having a lower ERG would create the impression that they’d be held to a lower standard. Prompted by such feedback, the state board of education last month tabled a vote on adoption of the revision.

“I really think that it was useful for its time, but I’m not sure it’s as useful any more,” said Ms. Sternberg, who is mulling dropping the classifications.

Adding to the ERGs’ obsolescence, she said, are Web-based data tools from her agency that let districts make their own comparisons.

Michael Wasta, the superintendent of the 9,000-student Bristol public schools, agrees that the ERGs have outlived their utility. With the federal No Child Left Behind Act, he noted, all schools must achieve the same improvement targets.

“Guys like me used to be very concerned eight to 10 years ago with how they performed within their ERG because the ERG was supposed to be a more level playing field,” said Mr. Wasta, whose district is in the highest-poverty group. “Now, we all have to meet the same standards.”

Vol. 25, Issue 10, Page 21

Published in Print: November 2, 2005, as Status Symbols

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