It was Stratfield's track record on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills that triggered the tampering investigation. The Iowas were administered to district students in January, but before sending the exams out for scoring, two central office administrators picked over the answer sheets of the 153 Stratfield 3rd and 5th graders who took the test. Students from the school do extremely well on the Iowas--from 1990 to 1992, composite scores never dipped below the 98th percentile--and the administrators were hoping to find clues as to what other schools might do to score higher. What they found, though, was an unusually high number of erasures. The tests were forwarded to the Riverside Publishing Co., the Chicago-area publisher of the Iowas, where researchers confirmed district officials' suspicions: Not only did the Stratfield tests contain an unusually high number of erasures, but the percentage of answers changed from wrong to right on at least one subsection was also high.
|Rumors swirled with sometimes wild speculation about who might have pumped up test scores at Stratfield. Some spread theories of a grassy-knoll conspiracy to discredit the school.|
More study was needed. District officials retested students at Stratfield and two other schools on March 21 and forwarded the results to Riverside. On April 15, the publisher's researchers delivered their report. Stratfield scores on the March retest had dropped on some sections by as much as 10 points. Perhaps more troubling was Riverside's now-completed study of erasures on the January tests. The number of Stratfield erasures was higher--five times higher in some cases--than the number of erasures on other schools' tests. Also, the researchers found an unusually high number of erasures--89 percent--that changed the answer from wrong to right. At the other schools, the highest correction rate posted by any grade was 69 percent.
Riverside's conclusion? "The evidence clearly and conclusively indicates that tampering occurred with the Stratfield School answer documents," an official wrote the district. Confronted with such evidence, superintendent Carol Harrington and members of the Fairfield school board decided to investigate. They also agreed to go public with the investigation and the test company's tampering conclusion, a decision that has been widely criticized. "It's a rock-and-a-hard-place problem," says Thomas Failla, the district's public relations consultant. "If they did not disclose, then they would have been criticized from the other side."
Harrington announced the alleged tampering and the investigation at a press conference on the evening of April 29. District officials had already mailed letters to notify parents of the investigation, but, in many cases, reporters beat the postal service to deliver the news. Some parents who were still unaware of the investigation showed up at school the next morning and were greeted by television news crews eager to capture their stunned reaction. The Fairfield Minuteman, one of two local newspapers, dubbed the scandal "Erasuregate" and ran front-page stories on the investigation for a month. Rumors swirled. Some spread theories of a grassy-knoll conspiracy at work to discredit the school; others alleged that district officials had demanded Previs' resignation. "Speculation and rash judgments only serve to inflame the situation and obscure the facts," said school board chairwoman Joan Maguire in a May 15 letter to school officials and PTA leaders. "Reason and common sense must prevail," superintendent Harrington echoed the next day.
While district officials never implicated Stratfield students in the tampering allegations, the kids were stung by the scandal. Teen-agers were said to have yelled, "Cheaters, cheaters, cheaters," as they drove by the school. Fears of similar harassment led school officials to pull Stratfield's entry in the town's annual Memorial Day parade. At PTA and board meetings, parents recounted how their children had tearfully confessed that they had erased answers on their tests and caused all the fuss.
Such tumult quickly caught the attention of the national media from nearby New York City. A year earlier, The New York Times had run a glowing profile of Stratfield and Previs under the headline: "What Makes a Special Elementary School So Special?" Its first story on the tampering scandal did not mention this earlier reporting, but its headline was a backhanded reference: "What Makes School So Good? Test Tampering, Officials Say." To handle the media flood, the board signed on Thomas Failla as a public relations consultant. (Failla is skilled in crisis communications; in 1984, he handled some of the media spin for Union Carbide Corp. when its chemical plant in Bhopal, India, leaked poisonous gas and killed more than 2,000 people.) Still, it was not long before the tale of trouble in an educational paradise became a global event. "I personally talked to a lawyer vacationing in Scotland who had heard about it," says James Lee, a former member of Fairfield's board of education. The last time scandal tainted the town, Lee remembers, was in the 1960s when the town tax collector embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. "That made the papers, but I don't think it made the Times. I don't think it made Good Morning America. I don't think anybody in Europe ever heard about it."
Meanwhile, district officials were contending with a virtual mutiny among the parents at Stratfield. The school's PTA had long been seen as the district's most active and organized; its annual September volunteer drive once netted 250 of the school's 320 families. Now, the group mobilized to defend the school. The day after the tampering investigation was announced, PTA leaders held a news conference and declared: "We are disappointed that our board of education and the school administration have elected to go public with this investigation prior to its completion." Within days, Stratfield supporters were sporting buttons and silver ribbons backing the school's leadership. Later, the PTA's leaders would demand that someone other than Harrington head the investigation; the superintendent, they claimed, would impose "her opinions and analysis of events in a way that precludes a fair and objective evaluation of the facts."
Previs cooperated with district officials and the investigation but publicly said he was mystified by the charges. Stratfield's erasures were probably higher, he explained, because students were taught to review their answers and make corrections. The cornerstone of his school is honesty, Previs told the Minuteman. "I can go to bed at night," he said. "I know what I've done and what I haven't done."
"I got a call from somebody who said, 'Show me anyplace but
By summer, school authorities and parents appeared to have called a truce in order to let the investigation play out without distracting eruptions in the press. By late August, they had settled enough of their differences to issue a joint statement urging the media to show restraint in their coverage of the fall opening of school. But not everybody has vowed silence. Victor DeMaria, for one, isn't about to shut up. The scandal touched his realty business almost immediately. "I got a call," he says, "from somebody who said, 'Show me anyplace but Stratfield School.' " Comments from other clients soon made DeMaria realize that while the investigation targeted only Stratfield, people weren't picking up the details from the blur of national reporting. The town itself was being smeared. "When you're in California, you don't know Stratfield from nothing," he explains. "The people who call, what they've seen on the Today show is that Fairfield has this problem. They don't talk about Stratfield. They talk about how Fairfield has an education problem. They turn immediately and say, 'What other towns are around there?' "
DeMaria has told anyone who will listen--including the national media--that the investigation is like an open wound; let it fester, and it will poison the whole town. "Everybody tells me, 'You should be quiet,' " says DeMaria, a former Marine jet pilot. "Me being quiet when they have a PR person doesn't make any sense. That's like when I was in Vietnam, and someone was shooting at me trying to kill me. And I'm told, 'Don't shoot back.' I've been there, I've done that. I'll stand up, and I'll shoot back. Don't tell me to be quiet because I'm not going to be. It's my business, and they're going to knock that down."
Ronald Williams also has an investment that he says is damaged by the district's investigation. A 40-year-old lawyer, he's filed suit against Riverside, arguing that publicity resulting from the publishing company's tampering conclusion has hurt the property value of his home--the home he bought four years ago specifically to enroll his son at Stratfield. "I don't think you can argue that house prices won't drop," he contends. "These houses in Stratfield are always advertised with 'award-winning school district.' They don't do that anymore." (Riverside has filed a court motion to dismiss the suit. "It has no basis in law or fact," says Robin Murphy, a spokeswoman for the company.)
But Williams is not really angry about plummeting property values. He says they just give him the legal standing to sue, which in turn gives him the chance to publicly answer the tampering charges that have tainted Stratfield. A litigator, he's an old pro at picking apart reports entered as evidence. Riverside's statistical analysis of the Stratfield tests amounts to "junk science," he says. The company ignored key facts, failed to compare Stratfield answer sheets with other high-performing schools, and steered the district to a faulty conclusion. "The funny thing is, these statistics?" Williams says. "They're nonsense. You cannot statistically prove tampering. Anyone who thinks he can doesn't know the first thing about science. You cannot statistically prove tampering on a test any more than you could prove statistically that I didn't shoot a 72 in golf when I said I did."
You can never prove tampering by piling up a bunch of numbers, he argues. "You can only do it with forensic analysis."