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NCLB Outrages

School’s Success Story Gives Way to Doubt

Incredibly sad. It seems
Biblical: Those who live by the test scores
will die by the test scores.


By Adam Nossiter

CHARLESTON, S.C. â MiShawna Moore has been a
hero in the worn neighborhoods behind this
cityâs venerable mansions, a school principal
who fed her underprivileged students, clothed
them, found presents for them at Christmas and
sometimes roused neglectful parents out of bed
in the nearby housing projects.

As test scores rocketed at her school, Sanders-
Clyde Elementary, the city held her up as a
model. The United Way and the Rotary Club
honored her, The Charleston Post and Courier
called her a âmiracle worker,â and the state
singled out her school to compete for a
national award. In Washington, the Department
of Education gave the school $25,000 for its
achievements.

Somehow, Ms. Moore had transformed one of
Charlestonâs worst schools into one of its
best, a rare breakthrough in a city where the
state has deemed more than half the schools
unsatisfactory. It seemed almost too good to be
true.

It may have been. The state has recently
started a criminal investigation into test
scores at Ms. Mooreâs school, seeking to
determine whether a high number of erasure
marks on the tests indicates fraud.

Ms. Moore, who has denied any wrongdoing, has
taken a job out of state, leaving behind hurt
feelings and wounded pride in a city of race
and class divisions as old as the time-mellowed
neighborhoods in this Old South shrine. The
public schools here are 98 percent African-
American, and nearly 20 percent of the cityâs
population was below the poverty level in the
2000 census.

âThey say we cheated â thatâs kind of
disrespecting us,â said Syllia Davis, 16, who
was one of Ms. Mooreâs students.

âThe kind of community we live in, they just
donât believe we could be that smart,â said Ms.
Davis, now a student at the public Garrett
Academy of Technology, peering from a doorway
in the old low-rise housing project behind the
school. Down the street, police officers were
stopping drivers for what they said were
routine license checks.

âSheâd do anything for us,â Ms. Davis
continued. âSheâd buy clothing, food baskets. I
wish sheâd come back. She worked hard for us.
For us to see her on the news and get
antagonized like that, itâs not nice.â

The message was the same from the cooks,
maintenance workers and nurses dropping off
their children on a recent chilly morning. âIt
was like this was her family,â said Sonya
Jenkins, a former nursing attendant. âShe had
great love for these kids.â

Even as parents, students and some teachers
rally around her, the school district that once
championed Ms. Moore says it is waiting on the
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to get
to the bottom of the mystery.

Sanders-Clyde Elementary under Ms. Moore
âbecame a symbol of what can be achieved with
the proper attention,â said the schools
superintendent, Nancy J. McGinley. âThatâs why
this situation is so distressing. It really, I
think, has been hurtful to the entire
community.â

Did something happen to the test booklets once
the students had gone home for the day? A sharp
drop in scores when the tests were closely
monitored this past spring by the school
district only heightened suspicions.

Ms. Moore, who worked into the night and on
weekends for her students, is now the assistant
superintendent of curriculum and instruction
for schools in Halifax County, N.C. She denied
any wrongdoing in a recent interview on local
television and said the affair was a
ânightmareâ for her. Through her lawyer here,
she declined to comment.

The school, a two-story brick building framed
by palmetto trees, has 326 students in a
fraying district worlds away from tourist
Charlestonâs 18th-century brick-and-stucco
splendor. Unassuming in appearance, it âwas one
of the jewels in our crown,â Dr. McGinley said.

Ms. Mooreâs students, nearly all black, seemed
to be breaking away from the well-worn path of
low achievement leading to low skills and low
pay in the Charleston tourism industry. The
principalâs renown was such that she had been
given control of yet another struggling
downtown Charleston school, in hopes that she
could also turn it around.

But then she left town after the closely
supervised tests were given in May, later
expressing unhappiness with the change in
testing policy. The school district said her
resignation was unexpected, and Dr. McGinley
said at the time that she had encouraged Ms.
Moore to stay.

âWe were really hoping Sanders-Clyde was going
to be our proof that we can educate any child,
no matter where they came from,â said Pamela
Kusmider, the departing board chairwoman for
downtown schools. âWhen I saw what she was
doing, I was like, yeah, she was proving that
these kids really can succeed.â

The schoolâs turnaround after Ms. Moore took
over in 2003 seemed miraculous. Under South
Carolina guidelines, most of the students that
year were not ready for the next grade; the
state deemed the schoolâs progress
unsatisfactory. Then things started to change.
Many students made spectacular gains â leaps
that in retrospect seem unlikely.

âYou donât go from nonreader to proficient
reader over the course of a year,â said Janet
Rose, a Charleston school official.

By 2007, 96 percent of third graders taking a
South Carolina test at Sanders-Clyde met the
state standard in English, compared with an
average of 78.3 percent at other city schools.

Meanwhile, Ms. Moore was building a reputation
as a kind of Mother Teresa of poor Charleston.
She did laundry for the children. She found
money to pay familiesâ electric bills and
helped them balance their checkbooks. At
Thanksgiving she was at the supermarket buying
turkeys. She maintained food and clothes
closets at the school, which became a kind of
community center, drawing in well-wishing
business partners across the city.

âWhen families ran out of food stamps, they
knew they could go up there,â Dr. McGinley
said. âShe understood the connection: we canât
get to the academics until we get to the
environment.â

Michael Ethridge, a Charleston lawyer who did
volunteer work for the school, said: âIt was
amazing to see. Sheâs just something of a force
of nature.â Mr. Ethridge added, âYou had the
sense the kids were cared for.â

But whispers began when the test scores rose,
and some wondered if the success was really
possible. Sanders-Clyde students struggled when
they went to other schools. Ms. Kusmider was
dumbfounded to find her sonâs friend, a student
at the school, having great difficulty reading.
âI said, âWhatâs going on? Youâre under
MiShawna Moore,â â she said. âI was very
angry.â

Another parent, Tanika Bausley, recalled, âIt
was hard for me to believe the scores that my
daughter had, knowing the struggles she was
having,â adding that her child had a
âborderline learning disability.â

After testing in 2007, the state noticed an
unusually high number of erasure marks â as
many as seven per child â with the erasures
becoming correct answers. âThat became a
concern, because the likelihood of that
happening is very small,â said Ms. Rose, the
district official, noting that the average was
around one such mark.

This year, after the tests were closely
monitored, the scores plummeted. Suddenly, 44.4
percent of third graders taking the state
science test met the state standard, compared
with 84.6 percent in 2007. Many teachers said
afterward that the presence of the auditors
themselves â âcold and very distant,â as one
put it â negatively influenced the scores.

The school district is not so sure.

âAll the evidence is pointing in the direction
of something happening,â Ms. Rose said. âThe
fact that she left doesnât make it look any
better. People sort of fill in the blanks.â

Ms. Moore, speaking to the television
interviewer, said, âI had nothing to do with
the allegations that are being made in the
newspaper against me and Sanders-Clyde.â

Still, the hurt lingers.

âItâs just disappointing that so much is in
question,â said Melvin Middleton, who took over
as principal after Ms. Moore left. âItâs the
whole idea that the children in this area, it
wasnât possible for them to achieve as
previously identified.

âKids read that. Kids are hearing things.â

— Adam Nossiter
New York Times
2008-10-31


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