FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- In this seaside town in one of the nation's richest counties, Stratfield School parents had plenty to brag about.
They had T-shirts heralding their public school's two-time selection as a national Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education. They had glossy copies of a 1993 Redbook magazine touting their school as one of the nation's best. And they had their pricey homes driven up in value by their proximity to a prize-winning elementary school.
But since May, when Fairfield school officials stated that the answer sheets for Stratfield Elementary School's standardized tests had been tampered with, an entire suburban community has been rocked by intrigue and scandal.
A former FBI agent, who once investigated Eastern bloc spies, was hired to probe the cheating charges. A forensic scientist who worked on the O.J. Simpson case put 8-year-olds' answer sheets under microscopes and in chemical baths to try to find the perpetrator. The school board paid a public relations firm $15,000 to do crisis control.
It's just the sort of imbroglio, observers say, that happens when parents with plentiful resources and high expectations feel betrayed by a school system that was supposed to send their children straight to the Ivy League.
"If you're high-achieving and you really believe in something, it's pretty upsetting to have that belief shaken to its very foundation," said Philip Halligan, president of Fairfield's PTA Council.
The troubles surrounding the Stratfield School, a 67-year-old school with 500 kindergartners through fifth-graders, began at the end of April. Superintendent Carol Harrington announced that the publisher of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a comprehensive national test given annually to many third- and ,, fifth-graders, had studied the school's 150 answer sheets from January and observed tampering on many exams.
Executives at Houghton Mifflin, parent company of the Iowa Test publisher, based their conclusions on comparisons between Stratfield's reading-comprehension tests and those from two other high-performing elementary schools in Fairfield. The Stratfield tests had 3.5 to 5 times the number of erasures of the other schools' exams. And 89 percent of the Stratfield erasures ended in a change to the correct answer compared with less than 70 percent of such switches at the other schools.
Such results, Houghton Mifflin officials concluded, "clearly and conclusively indicate tampering."
The school's principal and many Fairfield residents said there is nothing suspicious about such results. Still, the saga continued.
When students were retested, at the school board's request, Stratfield slipped behind the other two schools. On the test allegedly tampered with, Stratfield third-graders scored higher than 89 percent of students nationwide on vocabulary and reading comprehension. On the monitored retest, their scores fell to 80 percent for vocabulary and 79 percent for reading.
The school year closed with more drama: Connecticut's education department studied tests given to Fairfield fourth-graders in 1994 and 1995.
Again, Stratfield tests showed higher erasure rates than on the other schools' exams; again, 89 percent of erasures ended in correct answers.
"It is unlikely that this occurred by chance," concluded Harcourt Brace, the publisher of the Connecticut Mastery Test.
But at the Stratfield School staff and parents remain unconvinced that anyone did anything wrong, and are disgusted with having the integrity of their school attacked.
Principal Roger Previs, an education award-winner and a hero among local parents, maintains that "there has been no proof of tampering." He explains the high erasure rate as evidence of the school's emphasis on thorough, precise work.
"You can look at the statistics and say something is wrong or something is right," Previs said. "These kids are taught to self-evaluate. If you need to make a change, you do."
Parents have formed about a dozen committees around the matter, including a school morale committee, a "retesting dynamics" committee and a data-analysis committee. They have also sought advice from a Yale University therapist on handling their children's trauma.
Stratfield School parents say they are particularly concerned about the impact of the events on their children, who have had television cameras thrust into their faces and "cheater school" insults slung at them. Many say their children think they caused the scandal and are worried about erasing on tests again.
Harrington insists she took the "high road" by divulging the tampering.
But some Stratfield supporters are pointing their fingers at her, suggesting Harrington had an ongoing battle with Previs and wanted to bring him down. Their suspicion? Sabotage.
"By winning all kinds of accolades, Mr. Previs has upstaged others," said Stratfield parent and alumnus Cliff Myers.
Beyond the school's Melville Avenue site, there are other hypotheses, most notably about the pressures on Stratfield School staff to live up to their school's reputation.
Around town, there is also some not-so-subtle glee about the downfall of a school with standardized test scores typically 20 percent to 40 percent higher than those of other Fairfield schools.
"There's always been this elitism if you were in the Stratfield school, as if your kids were blessed somehow," said Clare Liberis, who has two children at another of the town's nine elementary schools. "My kids drink the same water as those kids. No one knew the explanation for why Stratfield always did better. Now there is one."
In the weeks since Fairfield schools let out, the Stratfield School drama goes on.
Connecticut's former public safety commissioner has been hired serve as the investigation's "impartial overseer." A report released by the state's top forensic scientist, Dr. Henry Lee, showed several different patterns of pencil strokes on 81 third-grade test sheets and a number of handprints on 28 exams.
Still to come: Findings from a renowned education professor at Michigan State University, and a case file from a network of former FBI agents whose typical turf is tax fraud.
Pub Date: 7/21/96