An investigation of unusually high test scores at one Fairfax County elementary school revealed evidence of "excessive coaching" and prompted disciplinary action against five employes including the principal, a spokesman for the superintendent said yesterday.
The five will receive official reprimands and will be transferred out of Bailey's Elementary School near Baileys Crossroads to other jobs in the school system, said spokeswoman Dolores Bohen. Officials would not say whether the transfers also involved demotions.
Bohen said school officials became suspicious when they learned that fourth graders at Bailey's -- who have scored well below the county average in recent years -- had made huge gains on this year's test. The scores improved by "way over 10 points" on a 100-point percentile scale and would have ranked the school near the top in the county, she said.
The problem turned up in May, when local officials began analyzing results of standardized educational ability and achievement tests developed by Science Research Associates and taken by all fourth, sixth, eighth and 11th graders in the county two months earlier.
The students were retested in June, and those results verified that the March tests "were not typical performance," she said.
A subsequent investigation turned up evidence of "excessive coaching" that may have included use of last year's test questions for practice, she said.
Bohen described the Bailey's incident as "an isolated situation" in which "well-intentioned people went beyond what they should have."
She said she could recall no other similar problem during the past decade.
Only two testing glitches have been reported in neighboring school systems recently.
In 1986, Maryland officials disqualified the scores of 291 Montgomery County students on the state's functional writing test when it was learned that teachers indirectly suggested how the students could improve their test papers. Though the Montgomery Village Junior High teachers were not disciplined, the ninth graders had to retake the test.
In 1984, 123 students at Ballou High School in the District had their scores on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test disqualified because counselors allowed some to complete the test in two days instead of one. The students were allowed to retake the test in 1985.
"I was very disappointed," Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said yesterday of the Bailey's incident, but he added that "it was a limited case."
He said he saw no need to change school testing rules or policies.
But some critics said what happened at Bailey's is evidence that too much reliance is placed on standardized tests as a way of measuring a school's value and performance.
"Test scores are good for real estate agents to sell property, but we need to continually home in on how children are reading, writing and comprehending," said Kevin Bell, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.
"We've got to stop worshiping test scores."
"It's almost a natural fallout from the test craze that has swept America," said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, a national advocacy group that is critical of standardized testing.
"People sometimes feel compelled to load the deck . . . . The ones you've caught are the tip of the iceberg."
School system officials would not discuss details of the case, in part because one of the five discipline cases has not been resolved.
However, they confirmed that the five are Principal Marilyn G. Fawley, whose case is still under review, and four employes whose names could not be learned. They are another school administrator, the school's two fourth-grade teachers and a third teacher.
Bohen said there was no evidence that the five collaborated.
Fawley's lawyer, Steven Stone, said his client was looking forward to her new job in the system's central office and that she had not received a reprimand.
He would not comment on details of the case.
Bohen said the coaching at Bailey's went far beyond the permitted lesson in test-taking skills that many teachers give to help relieve students' anxiety about the annual examinations.
The teachers being disciplined may have coached students using questions close to or the same as those in the previous year's test, officials said.
The SRA test administered this year is the same version used since 1978, although some questions may differ from year to year.
The school system investigation raised questions about improper storage of the test, one official said. The state, which requires the SRA tests, prohibits most school systems from storing their own, but Fairfax has an exemption because it is so large.
Bailey's is a 470-student school whose fourth graders scored in the 70th percentile on composite achievement last year and in the 57th percentile in educational ability, compared with the county average of 79th and 75th percentiles. The national average is at the 50th percentile.