Proposed changes to the classifications of specific school districts in Connecticut have sparked debate in some local communities over the effectiveness of the current system.

The state’s proposed reassignment of Connecticut school districts in light of data from the 2000 census has drawn attention to the Educational Reference Group designations that divide the districts into nine groups based on socioeconomic factors, State Department of Education consultant Peter Prowda said. The release of the 2000 census data has prompted the DOE to consider whether or not the groups are still needed, Prowda said, especially given the national system for accountability that has been instated since the inception of ERGs through the federal No Child Left Behind law.

ERGs have been used since 1996 to group similar districts together in order to avoid judging a district’s performance against the state average, which some detractors have said may not accurately reflect the district’s resources. ERG classifications are based on six socioeconomic variables, including median family income and parents’ educational background, and are designated by the letters A through I. The designation A denotes the most advantaged group of districts.

ERG distinctions traditionally have been the main reference point that allowed districts to gauge their performance against other comparable districts. But with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the reference points may no longer be necessary, said Larry Schaefer, associate superintendent of teaching and learning in Milford, Conn.

“ERGs were designed before the era of accountability to put some self-pressure on districts,” Schaefer said. “Now every child should be proficient at basic skills.”

But Prowda said he still thinks the ERG classifications are a valid reference point for the comparison of districts, along with other factors, such as test scores.

With measures in place to ensure accountability, Schaeffer said the proposed move of the Milford District from ERG F to D — indicating a step up in community resources — unfairly classifies his district. He said Milford would be at the very bottom of the D group and would have to compete with districts within the E grouping that have greater resources. The ERG classification is only based on averaging a few limited factors, and as a result and the groupings sometimes fail to accurately assess the resources of the district, he said.

“There are not clean breaks; it’s a continuum,” Schaefer said. “Where do you cut the pie?”

Unlike Milford, the proposed changes would give the Woodbridge, Conn., school district a lower ERG designation, down from A to B, Woodbridge Superintendent James Connelly said. The changes are inappropriate, Connelly said, because the census data does not consider that the median annual income is influenced by the higher housing prices in lower Fairfield County, where he said many residents commute to New York.

“[The state suggests] that’s the only place that the community is providing ERG A assets, which we think is skewed,” Connelly said. “Once you get beyond housing costs, the assets are the same.”

Connelly said he opposes removing the ERG classifications altogether because they are useful to him in his role as a superintendent, and he thinks comparing all districts equally would be unfair. An ERG A classification is a matter of pride for his community, he said. The state requires the district to make the classification public, along with other details regarding the district’s characteristics. Many people have moved to Woodbridge, he said, simply because it is an ERG A, the only one in New Haven County.

The DOE is currently using focus groups to consult superintendents and school boards on the relevance and impact of the proposed changes. Prowda said the DOE plans to issue a report for discussion by the state Board of Education in January.