Published Online:

Whodunit?

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

CONTINUED

Like investigations in most criminal cases, the district's probe will eventually have to explore the question of motive. If tampering occurred, someone spent hours dragging an eraser across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of answers. But why? Why risk a career by committing what amounts to educational malpractice?

Standardized test scores are concrete, objective, and easy to understand. And when you're trying to penetrate the abstract art of schooling, that's irresistible.

The most likely answer has something to do with the new duties assigned to standardized tests. Responding to the perceived crisis in education, state policymakers are building carrot-and-stick accountability systems that reward schools where academic achievement is high and punish those where it is low. Frequently lawmakers make standardized-test scores the yardstick of achievement in these systems. That's a task that even test makers say their products aren't designed for. Scores are valuable diagnostic and instructional tools, they say, not batting averages to be used to bully and cajole teachers and administrators to shape up. "There's little doubt that there's much more pressure for them to improve scores," says H.D. Hoover, a senior author of the Iowa tests. "And a lot of this pressure is generated by politicians and the media that keep saying our schools are crappy. This is not true. Kids today are scoring the highest they've ever scored. But so many of these things happen because teachers and school administrators feel pressure because it's in the media that schools in the United States are bad."

Connecticut and Fairfield are not immune from this national drive for accountability. State lawmakers aren't seeking backbreaking sanctions on poor-performing schools, but some talk up private school vouchers as the stick that can get schools moving. As a carrot to improve performance, the legislature last year approved about $1 million in bonus state aid for districts that improve CMT scores. "I think the day has come when we should start rewarding excellence in education," Governor John Rowland said at the time. "I don't think we can sit back any longer and go along with mediocrity."

While Fairfield's schools are already among the best in the state, they are not exempt from the pressure to improve. The surrounding county is one of the most affluent in the country--16 Fortune 500 companies are based there, more than in any area except New York City, Chicago, and Houston. Such a high concentration of wealth and business executives means standardized-test scores are watched closely, says Jack Blessington, a former independent school head in Greenwich, Connecticut, who recently served as interim head of a private school around the corner from Stratfield. "If you look at Fairfield County, people are judged by the country club they belong to or the Jeep that you drive or the size of the rock on your finger. It's the same way with the Iowas. The people who live here are marketing types, they're business types. They're looking to the bottom line."

Test scores also have been a pivotal issue during Fairfield's school-budget debates. During a March 1994 board of finance meeting on the district's proposed $56 million budget, one board member used Iowa results to question whether increased funding would necessarily translate into better student achievement. With an overhead projector, he displayed graphs showing that Stratfield 3rd graders scored as much as 41 percent better on the Iowas than their peers at the eight other elementary schools. Stratfield posted stratospheric scores, he noted, yet it had facilities or equipment comparable with the other schools.

Scores at the other schools were well above the national average, too, but the presentation left a wholly negative impression. James Lee, one of the school board members at the time, remembers: "The question to us was: 'Why are those schools failing?' " That question got kicked around in the papers and budget meetings over the next few weeks, despite arguments by district officials that the Iowas and other standardized tests do not accurately measure a school's performance. "I thought that was a misuse of the data to the second power," says Lee. "Tests like that are designed primarily to assess the student, not the school. You cannot control for enough of the variables between schools to stack them up as if they were bottles of Pepsi-Cola with different ounces of Pepsi in them." Lee and other board members fought to put the scores in the proper context, and superintendent Harrington wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Fairfield Citizen-News that ran under the headline, "Standardized Tests Wrong Way to Rank Schools."

But even as they tried to put the scores in context, school officials gave in at times and used test scores to counterattack, according to Lee. Standardized-test data became part of the public dialogue about schools, he says, and when district students scored well on the CMTs or on the SATs, "we were not above mentioning it. I think what had happened was that the responsible approach--which is 'these data were not intended to be used for comparison'--was getting us killed."

Fairfield superintendent Harrington and other district officials vigorously contend that the state, parents, and the wider Fairfield community do little to pressure schools to improve test scores. Central-office administrators evaluate schools on a whole host of criteria--students' daily work, the school climate, staff professionalism, and parental involvement. Parents in Fairfield do so much volunteer work and participate in so much of the district's decisionmaking that they measure the schools by the classes and teachers they see in action, not by test scores.

School-spending critics sometimes cite test scores to argue against a budget, Harrington says. "But I would argue that it's not been a problem. It tends to come up every year when there are problems with the budget. If the mill rate goes up more than the community feels it should, it becomes more of an issue."

Former board member James Lee argues that if there was tampering, the culprit was probably motivated by altruism, not pressure to boost scores. Iowa scores help district officials identify students for advanced-level work in at least two district programs--middle school math and English. Also, a score in the 97th percentile on the Iowas is the first hurdle to enroll in the vaunted gifted-and-talented summer program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore--a program that a number of Fairfield students shoot for. With such plum opportunities riding on the Iowa tests, it's easy to see how a teacher or administrator might decide to pump up scores.

Indeed, should the district's investigators explore the many different ways that standardized-test scores in Fairfield are factored into decisions--both inside and outside schools--they could concoct any number of theories about the tamperer's motive. Clearly, test scores count for a lot in Fairfield. They are incorporated into curriculum and program calculations at both the school and district level. And as Lee points out, test scores sometimes determine who makes the first cut for an advanced-level program.

But scores also figure into money matters. Thanks to the state's new "achievement grant" program, Fairfield's CMT scores won the district about $15,000 in additional state aid last year. That's a puny sum--about $1,000 a school. But as the 1994 board of finance debate proved, scores can also influence the outcome of the district's multimillion dollar budget. Perhaps most important, the scores also figure prominently in what the people of Fairfield read about their schools. They are splashed on newspaper front pages and incorporated into a measurement of school system quality published in a "best places to live" survey done by Connecticut magazine. (Fairfield is the second-best place to live among the state's larger cities, the magazine says, and its school system is also second-best.) They are also featured in the state-mandated school profiles designed for public consumption, and they're included in the report that realtor Victor DeMaria sends to his clients with the push of a button.

And while district officials try to educate the public about test scores and squash inaccurate uses, they occasionally give in to the temptation to use test scores to tout their schools' success. In 1994, five months after the controversy over scores during the budget debate, the district issued its annual report and devoted half of its 24 pages to detailing test scores from the Iowas, the CMTs, and the SATs. Harrington and other officials contend that that report is designed strictly to be informational; charts were introduced that year to make it easier for readers to see trends over time. The number of pages given over to scores "has nothing to do with the weight that we give them," she says. "It's about trying to show in graph form what we have been doing." Still, the written text accompanying the charts often reads like promotional copy; the captions for each of the nine Iowa charts boast how much better Fairfield students score compared with the rest of the country.

Lee, who was board chairman when the report was issued, says he can't recall if the annual report was a response to the tempest stirred by the budget discussion of test scores. "But as I remember it, the school district reports themselves became more of a public relations document in the last few years. And that may have been part of the response."


Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented

MORE EDUCATION JOBS >>