What is PACT?

The Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test is made up of exams in math, English/language arts, science and social studies that third- through eighth-grade public school students take annually. Scores are key components in state report cards released in November, and they often are the basis for state and federal awards for achievement as well as for funding to help low-achieving students.

Sanders-Clyde Elementary, a school lauded for its success in educating low-income students, saw a precipitous drop in its test scores this year, raising questions about a former principal who led the school's transformation and casting doubts on the school's true progress during the past five years.

The scores

The following are a sample of Sanders-Clyde Elementary School's third-graders' scores on the 2007 and 2008 Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests. The percentages indicate the percentage of students who met the state standard by scoring at or above their grade level.Subject -- 2007 Score -- 2008 ScoreEnglish/language arts -- 96.2% -- 66.7%Math -- 96.2% -- 47.2%Science -- 84.6% -- 44.4%Social studies -- 84.6% -- 55.6%

Charleston County school officials were so concerned with the decline of the school's Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test scores that on Tuesday they asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate.

Sanders-Clyde is a school in downtown Charleston that serves some of the poorest students in the county. Most of its children come from the nearby homeless shelter or public housing apartments. Its test scores once were the worst in the county, and its future was so bleak that the county board planned to close it.

Then MiShawna Moore became the school's principal in 2003. She tailored lessons for students, helped their parents pay bills, washed students' clothes and opened the school building on weekends. The school's test scores began to rise.

By 2007, the school outscored state and district averages, far exceeding the progress of schools with students from similar backgrounds. Educators hailed Moore as a model for other principals, the community showered her school with praise, and federal and state awards went to the school in recognition of its achievement. Moore was so successful that she was asked to lead a second downtown school, Fraser Elementary, to duplicate her accomplishments.

This year, the school's PACT results fell sharply in every subject and at every grade level.

This was the first time that the school district monitored the school's testing. District officials took tests away from the school each night and put monitors in classrooms daily. Janet Rose, the district's executive director of assessment and accountability, told The Post and Courier in May that the extra scrutiny would validate the school's scores.

A few weeks after the tests this spring, in a move that surprised parents and officials, Moore announced that she was leaving Charleston County. Moore refused to do any media interviews at that time, and she now works as an assistant superintendent in Halifax County, N.C., schools. Phone messages and an e-mail to Moore were not returned Tuesday.

The results

Sanders-Clyde's scores this year are far lower than its scores from the past few years. Last year, in most subjects, 80 to 90-plus percent of its students were at least minimally prepared for the next grade, according to PACT results. This year, about half of students were unprepared for the next grade in most subjects.

Last year, 96 percent of its third-grade students scored at or above their grade level in math. This year, 47 percent scored at or above their grade level.

A typical one-year fluctuation in a small school might be 10 percentage points, the average at Sanders-Clyde was 31. The biggest drop was 49.

The school's scores this year are better than the results that preceded Moore's arrival, but they are in line with those of other low-performing schools.

More questions

Other educators have been suspicious of Sanders-Clyde's achievement. Orange Grove Elementary Charter School Principal Larry DiCenzo has had a few former Sanders-Clyde students transfer to his school. He said their report cards and test scores didn't match what his teachers saw in the classroom.

One student entered his school last year. While at Sanders-Clyde, her records show that she scored in the top percentage of students statewide in English/language arts and math. But when she took a different test that measured students' performance at Orange Grove, she scored in the 44th percentile for reading and in the 40th percentile for math. The school checked with the child's family to see whether she was experiencing a traumatic situation at home that could cause such a change, but DiCenzo said that wasn't the case.

DiCenzo reported his concerns to the district after an article in May in The Post and Courier that highlighted Moore's work to improve Fraser and Sanders-Clyde. He didn't understand how such large gains could happen so quickly, he said.

"Washing clothes for a family is not going to improve test scores," he said. "I have to laugh at that. That was part of what she said. There's a heck of a lot more to it than that. I doubted those results form day one."

Pressure to achieve

Test results have become increasingly important in this era of accountability, and South Carolina's test security procedures are among the strictest nationwide, said Liz Jones, director of the state Education Department's Office of Assessment.

The state has records of the number of answer switches, gauged by eraser marks, made by students. The state average is less than one eraser mark per student. A red flag is raised when students have more than four eraser marks per test.

The state did an unannounced visit to Sanders-Clyde in the spring of 2006 after officials saw a high number of eraser marks from 2005, the same year the school's test scores shot up, said schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley. The state monitor stayed for one day during testing and concluded there was no cause for alarm, she said.

When test results came out in 2007, Rose discovered that an unusually large number of Sanders-Clyde students jumped two performance levels in one year, McGinley said. The district consulted with the state and found the school had a high number of eraser marks, she said.

District officials agreed to monitor the school during testing in the spring. Eraser marks for the school's 2008 results have returned to the statewide average.

"At this point, we are taking this very seriously," McGinley said. "We don't know what happened. We're drawing no conclusions. We're certainly not happy that we had to report this, but at this point, we're not going to speculate."

Anyone found guilty of violating test security procedures could be fined up to $1,000 and/or jailed for up to 90 days. The state Board of Education also may suspend or revoke administrative or teaching credentials.