By Drew Lindsay — September 04, 1996 32 min read
Somebody cheated on standardized tests at a top Connecticut school. And it wasn’t the students.

The Connecticut State Police headquarters straddles a low hill just outside the city limits of Meriden, about 25 miles south of Hartford. The site used to be a boys’ reform school, and most of its dozen or so buildings are old, stone war horses that wheeze with age. But at one end of the compound stands a low-slung structure, its spanking new brick capped with a shiny green metal roof. Here, in quiet, cool rooms often lit only by the glow of computer monitors, roughly 30 scientists, technicians, ex-cops, and other forensic experts assigned to the state’s crime lab pore over evidence from murders, sexual assaults, fraud, robberies, and the like. Many of these sleuths hold advanced degrees--even Ph.D.s--in forensics or more pedestrian sciences like chemistry. They read magazines like Microscopy Today, and their shoptalk is laced with jargon and acronyms--ESDA, VSC-1, and FTIR--that make even the most grisly murder seem routine, another day at the office.

Framed and hanging on a wall just past the building’s reception area and a card-key entry are clippings that tell the story of the “Woodchipper Murder,” a case from the late 1980s in which a husband killed his wife and stuffed her body through a woodchipper. It was the first time in Connecticut that prosecutors put someone on trial for murder without a body to back up their charge, but Henry Lee, the lab’s director, found the proof needed to convict, matching nail polish from a severed finger to a brand found in the dead woman’s bedroom. Since then, Lee has free-lanced his services in a number of high-profile cases--most recently, the investigation of White House aide Vincent Foster’s suicide. In the process, he’s become one of the country’s best-known crime busters. Fans of the Court TV network will probably remember that he took the stand as a star witness for the O.J. Simpson defense team last year and smacked his hand repeatedly in red paint in a dramatic demonstration of how blood splatters.

It is Lee and his crack team that school officials in Fairfield, Connecticut, have turned to for help in solving a mystery of their own. It all began last winter when district officials noticed a suspiciously high number of erasures on students’ standardized tests. By spring, the publisher of the test had concluded that someone--or more than one person--had tampered with the answer sheets turned in by Stratfield School, one of Fairfield’s nine elementary schools. By summer, the school board of this 7,000-student district had assembled a team to investigate the tampering that included Lee’s crime lab, a retired judge, a nationally known testing expert, and a firm of private investigators headed by an ex-FBI agent.

Didn’t happen, they said when the scandal broke. Couldn’t have. If you’re going to accuse such fine educators of cheating, better back it up with rock-solid evidence.

But not everyone in Fairfield is thrilled to see school officials spending taxpayer money on a manhunt. Stratfield is the district’s flagship--it has twice won the federal blue ribbon award for excellence, and Redbook magazine in 1993 named it one of the best elementary schools in the country. The school’s principal, Roger Previs, is also something of a local hero, having steered the school to such dizzying heights while dazzling parents with his commitment, warmth, and integrity. Parents say Previs’ staff is devoted to him and to their students. To suggest that they would cheat, that the children’s scores were cooked, that the school’s accolades were a fraud--well, that’s out of the question. Didn’t happen, they said when the scandal broke. Couldn’t have. If you’re going to accuse such fine educators of cheating, better back it up with rock-solid evidence.

And that’s exactly what the crime lab in Meriden is looking for. Before their investigation is complete, Lee and his staff will squint through high-powered microscopes for hour upon hour, combing for clues among the thousands of answer bubbles on the tests. They also will bombard the pages with electrons and ultraviolet rays, chemically bringing to light what the human eye can’t see. And like any cop in the movies, they will dust for fingerprints. In the end, they hope to have the answer to the question that everyone in Fairfield is asking: Whodunit?

While modern-day crime stories are often told against a gritty, urban backdrop, the classics--especially Agatha Christie tales--are frequently set in quaint, seaside towns. Fairfield is not a quaint, seaside town, but it’s about as close as you get within an easy commute of New York City. Tucked just south of the city of Bridgeport along the Long Island Sound, it boasts five beaches and a handful of marinas. With 55,000 residents, it is more a city than a town, but it has charms and community pride typical of an old New England hamlet. The town meeting still prevails as Fairfield’s form of government, albeit in a condensed version, as 50 members of the community are elected every two years to represent their neighbors on civic matters. Independent businesses--Mike’s Pizza and Gregory’s Café and Bar--line the town’s main drag, the Post Road, which is anchored by a white gazebo where families sit on warm summer nights and eat ice cream.

Fairfield is one of dozens of communities that orbit New York City from a distance of an hour or less by train and compete economically and psychologically. Westbury on Long Island, Westchester County in New York, Chatham in New Jersey--they’re all nice places to live, but a good school system can tip the scales for young families looking to move. “You want it to be a nice town, but if the education system isn’t too great, well, you’re going to think twice about it,” says Victor DeMaria, director of sales for Century 21 realtors in Fairfield. “It’s the same across the United States. I get people from California, and the first question out of their mouth is: ‘I need information about the schools.’ ”

And that’s what DeMaria gives them. When asked about schools in a district, he types the client’s name and address into his computer and punches a “send” button. Automatically, the information is relayed by fax to National School Reporting Services Inc. in nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Billing itself as an “education information service,” the company culls school data from public sources in 15 states and packages the information, community by community, for realtors and their clients. Within a few days of receiving DeMaria’s fax, it sends a school report to his client--complete with the district’s average class sizes, SAT scores, and information about curriculum, programs, and educators’ professional qualifications. “This is freedom of information,” DeMaria says. “This is high technology. This is instant.”

Luckily for DeMaria and other local realtors, schools in Fairfield have enjoyed an outstanding reputation for years, as far back as the 1950s. “Fairfield is traditionally known for quality education--period,” contends Anthony Costa, director of teacher education at Fairfield University. A Fairfield native, Costa taught in the system for 13 years and for a time headed a local teachers’ union. He left in the 1960s for a principal’s job elsewhere in Connecticut but returned in 1970, became a professor at the university, and took over its student internship program in the Fairfield schools. He remembers that back then, talk in the Fairfield High School teachers’ lounges was always about education. “In the positive sense. They never degraded kids,” he says. “It was always positive, positive, positive. What can we do to make education better?”

At Stratfield Elementary, “anything other than excellence is unacceptable,” wrote the school’s committee in its application for a U.S. Department of Education national “Blue Ribbon School” award.

Although all of Fairfield’s schools enjoy a good reputation, Stratfield has long been seen as the best. Lights burn at the school at all hours, and teachers in each grade meet weekly to discuss curriculum and swap ideas. Roger Previs, the principal, sets the standard. For 17 years, he has met the children as they arrive each morning and sat with them at lunch each day. Newcomers immediately sense that he offers caring leadership that puts the kids first and all else second, says Susan Brown, who runs a business that serves as a sort of welcome wagon to families. “You come into the school, and he’s there,” she says. “He’s just always there.”

Families moving to Fairfield are also wowed by the school’s pile of awards. Stratfield’s 480 students regularly win the right to represent Connecticut in national math, language arts, creative thinking, and other academic contests. The U.S. Department of Education first named Stratfield a national “Blue Ribbon School” in 1987; a second award followed in 1994, only a year after Redbook named it one of the best 177 elementary schools in the country. At Stratfield, “anything other than excellence is unacceptable,” wrote the school’s committee of parents, teachers, and staff in its application for the 1994 blue ribbon.

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 Stratfield School.’”

Victor DeMaria,
realtor in Fairfield, Connecticut

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.”

The scandal arrived at the state’s crime lab in mid-May packaged in two cardboard boxes. Inside, stuffed in manila envelopes, were the 153 answer sheets--two double-sided pages each--from the Iowa tests the Stratfield students took in January. The boxes also contained the March retests and another couple hundred tests taken by students at two other elementary schools, a sampling that would serve as a control group.

Henry Lee directed the lab’s investigation, but James Streeter, a “questioned document examiner,” did a lot of the legwork. Day after day, he peered through a microscope at the thousands of answer-sheet bubbles, searching for clues. Was there a pattern to the direction and length of the pencil marks? Children generally fill in test-sheet circles randomly, their scratchings varying with each answer. But adults are more consistent, often using the same strokes to darken every circle. Did the pencil marks slash through each bubble the same way? Why did the marks break the bubble’s circumference on question three but not on question 23? Such were his days. And at night, Streeter says, the bubbles would float by in his dreams.

A burly ex-cop with a mustache and a bone-crunching handshake, Streeter once used his instincts and street smarts to catch crooks. Now, he works in a white lab coat and tinkers with James Bond-like gadgets to detect forgeries, uncover fraud, and identify the handwriting of bank robbers, kidnappers, extortionists, and the like. One of the instruments used on the Stratfield exams, the Electrostatic Detection Apparatus, or ESDA, is a breadbox-sized device that detects indentations on paper. If, for example, police found a note pad in the home of kidnapping suspects, the ESDA could bring to the surface the indentations made on the pad when the kidnappers wrote their ransom note.

In the Stratfield investigation, Streeter and his colleagues took the tests with the most suspicious pencil strokes or erasures and, one at a time, placed them on the ESDA. After stretching a polymer film similar to Saran Wrap over them, they would then slide a thin tube encasing a tungsten wire back and forth across the answer sheet, charging the paper electrically. Finally, they would pour tiny beads coated with a dark powder resembling photocopy toner across the polymer. If the test sheet carried indentations, the powder magically stuck to that part of the paper, much as glitter sticks to paper lined with glue.

To analyze the pencil markings on the answer sheets, the lab turned to its scanning electron microscope. The SEM makes the image of a scientist bent over the microscope seem as dated as the horse and buggy; it magnifies objects up to 5,000 times their actual size and projects these images onto three computer monitors. With the Stratfield answer sheets, technicians first used the SEM to study the paper disruption caused by the erasure marks. As with the pencil marks, consistency here could have pointed to an adult, not a child, doing the erasing. They also used the SEM to fire electrons into the pencil scratchings on the answer sheets; the resulting energy bursts were then recorded in color computer graphs. If the graphite in one answer bubble kicked off more or less energy than the graphite in another bubble, that could have suggested that the graphite was bonded by two different chemical agents--which would have suggested two pencils had been used on a single answer sheet.

After a month of investigation, however, Streeter and his colleagues could clear up little of the mystery. The ESDA test revealed no indentations on the answer sheets that amounted to anything. Nor did the SEM conclusively show whether more than one pencil had been used on any test. The lab did find scads of adult-sized fingerprints from the documents, and even some “friction ridge imprints” made by an adult palm moving across the sheet. But by the time the cardboard boxes arrived at the lab, a lot of adults had probably handled the tests, including teachers, central-office staff, and the researchers at Riverside. “It’s what we call a ‘neither nor,’ ” Streeter explains. He and his colleagues could neither rule out tampering nor prove it. “Was it an unusual case? Yeah,” Streeter admits. “But very frustrating. Scientists generally like to find the answers to questions.”

Given the lack of conclusive evidence in Lee’s June 26 report, Fairfield school officials might have pulled the plug on their investigation. But five days before Lee reported his findings, the district received word from state officials reviewing Stratfield students’ work on the Connecticut Mastery Test, the state’s mandated achieve-ment exam. Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement, the publishers of the CMT, had compared erasure rates on Stratfield tests with the district’s other eight elementary schools. Like Riverside, Harcourt Brace found that both the erasure rates and the percentage of answers changed from wrong to right were “considerably higher” on Stratfield’s tests. The company’s June 21 analysis did not mention tampering, but it concluded, “It is very unlikely that this occurred by chance.”

The district now had analyses from two commercial publishers concluding that Stratfield test results were mighty fishy. What’s more, there was evidence to suggest that the tampering had been going on for some time. Riverside researchers had been able to study the Iowa answer sheets from one year’s test at Stratfield; the Harcourt Brace analysis, however, was based on two years’ worth of tests--1994 and 1995.

And so the probe continued. By Lee’s report in June, it was entering its third month. A nationally known testing expert, Susan Phillips of Michigan State University, was now running a statistical analysis. And the district had signed on a local private investigative firm, Checkers, that was interviewing school and district staff. A few weeks later, Nicholas Cioffi, a former judge and state public safety commissioner, was hired to oversee the investigation. All these investigators, district officials said, would go where the facts of the case led them.

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.”

Standardized tests have long been a bogeyman in education. For years, critics have questioned the tests’ fairness, their biases, and the accuracy of summing up a child’s entire achievement in a single number. In the early 1990s, Bernard Gifford, chairman of a national commission on testing, concluded, “The human animal is far more complex and far more rich than can be measured by a single test.”

But the events in Fairfield suggest that whatever their warts, standardized tests have only gained in influence. In a 1992 study, Arizona State University West professors tallied more than 20 different ways that Iowa test results are used in that state, from communicating with parents to granting teacher tenure to advertising a school. Such proliferating uses of scores worry testing critics and test makers alike. Riverside Publishing Co., for example, issues a list of stern proscriptions against the use of the Iowa scores. Misinterpretation and misuse of the scores, it notes, can fuel a frenzy that puts “pressure on schools and individuals to do whatever is necessary to obtain higher test scores.”

Concerned test makers and educators hope to curb the misuse of tests and deflate their importance. The Connecticut Testing Network, a group of some 300 people interested in academic assessment--including a Fairfield district official--is working with the state and local school boards to educate the public and the press about proper uses of scores. But this is an uphill battle. They argue that schools should be judged by taking stock of the principal, the teachers, enrollment demographics, the classroom energy, and the kind of learning taking place. But most people--policymakers, journalists, politicians, new-home buyers, and even busy parents--don’t view schools from such a firsthand, ground-level perspective. Rather, they’re judging them on the fly at 30,000 feet. And from that height, test scores are about the only way to make that kind of judgment. The numbers are concrete, they’re objective, and they’re easy to understand. And when you’re trying to penetrate the jargon-laden, abstract art of schooling, that’s irresistible.

The Fairfield district will administer the 1996 version of the Connecticut Mastery Test this fall. District officials say they are reviewing test security procedures. Parents, meanwhile, are worried about the anxiety their kids will feel walking into the testing room; some children, undoubtedly, will think twice before they erase an answer. And there’s speculation that the media will show up to record the event and tell the nation, once again, about this troubled district.

District officials, however, hope to wrap up their investigation soon. They’ve talked about asking Lee’s lab to do additional tests on the answer sheets--including matching fingerprints lifted from the sheets to those of school officials and teachers. Such tests may reveal whodunit, but there’s a feeling in the community--fueled perhaps by a long summer in which key figures have been tight-lipped about the investigation--that no one will ever be fingered as the culprit. Perhaps all the noise and confusion have been about nothing but some smart kids who were particularly good at taking tests.

When board members were interviewing candidates to oversee the probe, they talked to Jack Blessington, the former Greenwich private school head, about the job. He advised them to shut the investigation down and issue a report to the community quickly, even if no guilt was assigned. It’s 95 percent certain that someone tampered with the tests, he said, but you’ll never be 100 percent certain. “I told them,” Blessington says, “ ‘You’ll never find the smoking eraser.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Whodunit?