Christine Stuart/CTNJ photo
Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell (Christine Stuart/CTNJ photo)

Parents and school officials told the Education Committee Wednesday that a provision in a bill could penalize parents for choosing to opt their child out of standardized tests.

According to Madison Schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice, it could also penalize taxpayers because the community could lose both Title I funding and other state funding, if student participation drops below 95 percent.

However, Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the committee, that “95 percent participation is the federal law.”

She said the federal government approved Connecticut’s participation plan last week, which primarily commends districts for desired participation rates and provides support for schools and districts that fall short. She said if there continues to be a pattern with poor participation in a district then “Title I funds may be withheld.”

It’s those types of financial sanctions that have Scarice, parents, and lawmakers concerned.

The unintended consequence could mean an increase in local property tax burdens, Scarice said. And a “warped perception” of a school district’s performance because low participation rates could drop the school one level on the performance index and make the system a “farce.”

But Wentzell insisted the measures were required by federal law.

Scarice disagreed.

“Federal law defers the opt-out policies to the states,” Scarice said. “It does not dictate the penalties that are prescribed right now in Connecticut.”

He said the federal law does not dictate that Title I funds should be withheld from districts with low participation rates. He said similar financial sanctions have not been adopted by New York state, which saw 20 percent of its students opt out of the test.

“There’s a 95 percent threshold, but there’s a lot of latitude at the state level,” Scarice said.

Sen. Gayle Slossberg, who co-chairs the Education Committee, said that conflicts with what Wentzell testified to, “but is good information to have as we move forward.”

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, who co-chairs the Education Committee with Slossberg, said it doesn’t make sense that a school’s performance index would be impacted by test participation.

However, on the other side of the argument the federal government is still requiring 95 percent participation rates so it can measure performance across schools and states.

Scarice said he isn’t questioning the measurement of performance through tests. He’s questioning the final sanctions with the removal of Title I funds, which is an entitlement meant to help low-income students.

Approximately 267,000 Connecticut public school students took the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium test in 2015.

Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, said she has active parent groups in her town that have concerns about the SBAC assessment. In Madison, 77 percent of students took the test in 2015.

“You’re really penalizing, by making this change, all the taxpayers of that community,” Kokoruda said.

She said the towns that are graduating students who go to college and need fewer remedial courses have a high percentage of parents opting their children out of these tests.

She said they support education in their community and now that they’re able to save money because of changes in the minimum budget requirement they’re being penalized “because of parents rights.”

“How can I get my town to get a 95 percent without asking parents to give up their rights?” Kokoruda asked.

Wentzell said in one of the school districts a superintendent wrote a weekly column in a local paper to talk about how important it was to test all of the students. She said participation was high in that school district.

“It really comes down to leadership strategies,” Wentzell said.

She said they were able to avoid penalizing districts for low participation in 2015, but won’t be able to do the same in 2016.

Connecticut’s largest teacher’s union is also against the measure.

“These punitive measures run the risk of diminishing student services, particularly among low-income children,” Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said in his testimony to the committee. “They may cause cuts and reallocation in other school programs, or result in increased local property tax burdens as districts try to fill the gaps.”