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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.' "

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