Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's education reform bill -- and a substitute bill approved by the state's Education Committee last week-- had parents and teachers at Monday night's forum in Westport questioning whether standardized tests should be used to evaluate teachers, whether teachers' pay and tenure should be tied to their evaluations, and the impact of the bill on high-performing school districts like Westport's.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican whose district includes Westport, one of six panelists at the forum, said Connecticut schools have the widest "achievement gap" in the nation and that 41 percent of state students are in what is considered "a failing system." She said the Obama administration sends money to states based on whether they've instituted educational reforms and that Connecticut receives $7 per student -- compared to $800 per student in Rhode Island and $300 to $400 per student in Massachusetts and New York. "The Obama administration said, `You aren't serious about education reform,' " Boucher told about 125 parents and teachers in Town Hall's auditorium.

Another panelist, Kathy Sharp, president of the Westport Education Association, said she hopes whatever was done in Hartford "keeps this incredible school district we have here intact" and concentrates on helping under-performing school districts. She said one of her students in AP Economics indicated that a gap can be closed by the top levels falling, not just the bottom ranks rising. Sharp added that much of the achievement gap in Connecticut is caused by socioeconomic inequality and that it isn't fair to blame teachers for under-performing students.

Boucher said the education reform bill "is in motion right now" and that state legislators are "not quite sure what will happen." She said Malloy has said he won't sign the substitute bill, but the time to act is short since the state legislative session ends May 9.

Boucher said it wouldn't be right to support a bad bill, but added, "We can't just stay where we are because the status quo is failing 41 percent of Connecticut's children."

Julia McNamee, a teacher at Staples High School and panelist, said, "If standardized testing is not linked to tenure and pay, I'd be happy to sit down and be quiet." McNamee said she and other Westport teachers already "teach to the test" for a few months a year and that students have glazed eyes, send text messages and are "bored silly."

Bright students are anxious to leave class and struggling students are panicking over tests, McNamee said. She said 10th graders taught to the Connecticut Academic Performance Test have to read "numerous stories aimed at kids 11 to 12 years old" and that she and her ninth-grade class recently discussed a New York Times' article about how good writing affects the brain differently than bad writing -- a topic, she said, that would never be covered on a standardized test.

"There's a lot that's wrong with standardized testing. If you tie it to my tenure and salary, I have no choice but to teach to the test," McNamee said. "Teachers' livelihoods are tied to a reductive and stultifying process ... You tie pay and tenure to standardized testing, you lose what's really wonderful in Westport."

Boucher said the process for evaluating teachers and principals was still outstanding but Malloy's bill envisioned the framework for teacher evaluations being based on guidelines adopted by the state Board of Education in consultation with the state Department of Education's Performance Evaluation Advisory Council. Those guidelines called for standardized tests to account for 22.5 percent of a teacher's evaluation, with a plurality, 40 percent, based on observations of a teacher's performance. Malloy's bill also tied salary increases and tenure to a teacher's evaluation.

Boucher said Malloy's bill also linked evaluations to the dismissal of a teacher, while the substitute bill de-links dismissals and tenure from a teacher's evaluation.

Several people at Monday night's forum said tenure allows teachers to be creative, and McNamee said she supplemented instruction on a Toni Morrison novel by having students look at the Bible, adding she didn't know if she would have done that if she didn't have tenure.

But Boucher said the general public dislikes tenure. "That's the one thing they see as the root of all evil for some reason," she said.

Sharp said teachers have felt a lot of uncertainty over whether their evaluations will be linked to tenure and pay. She said the substitute bill called for Stefan A. Pryor, commissioner of the state Department of Education, and PEAC to develop a plan by 2013. "We know a plan is going to be developed, but it kind of leaves us hanging. Uncertainty is not great for professionals like us," she said.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a panelist, said he was "very uncomfortable" with leaving the criteria for evaluating teachers and principals to be filled in later.

"We have heard you loud and clear," Steinberg said. "Everybody is concerned about teaching to the test. Should it be one of many criteria? Yes. But I think the weighting of the criteria is critical ... I am extremely concerned about rushing to judgment on the evaluative criteria." Steinberg said the trend was toward standardized tests because they enabled people to think objective criteria existed to evaluate students. He said the tests weren't effective in evaluating if a student would be a good member of the community, but added, "When you get subjective, you get squishy. People don't agree on criteria and differences in student learning styles."

Westport resident Jill Greenberg said she was "a lover of data" and that teachers ask students who write essays to show where their data came from. "If you are going to link teacher evaluation to student performance on [standardized] tests, what is the data that gives you permission to do that?" she asked.

Sharp said she was aware of data that supported using standardized tests to measure a student's skills, but not teacher performance. "So much can affect a score that's outside a teacher's control...We must stop blaming educators for social ills that get in the way of learning," she said.

Nina Sankovitch, an audience member, said, "Where is the proof that bad teachers are the cause of Connecticut's achievement gap? I don't see any proof of that. I want to see where the proof is." State Rep. Gail Lavielle, a panelist, said she was surprised at the lack of communication preceding Malloy's bill and the substitute bill, saying more views and input were needed. Boucher said a bill that tried to reform Connecticut schools was of such magnitude that it shouldn't be rushed.

The impact of either bill on Westport's schools was a topic of concern for the public, teachers and legislators during the two-hour forum.

"I have a concern about the schools that do perform well, like those in Westport. I don't want to see them dragged down. I think we need mandate relief," Lavielle said.

Steinberg said, "In Westport, the best outcome may be to just leave us alone. We need to find a path that doesn't hurt schools that are doing well." Steinberg, though, added toward the end of the forum, "Whatever we decide, whatever ends up happening or not happening, it's not the end of the story. I can tell you one thing -- the legislature never gets it right the first time."