Orange Grove Charter School eighth grader Noah Boudolf got perfect scores in every subject on the state standardized tests in writing, reading and math in the spring of 2018. Matt Crum/Staff

Charleston eighth-grader Noah Boudolf knows that he's more than just a test score — but still, his test scores are off the charts.

Noah received a standing ovation from parents and classmates during a recent award ceremony at Orange Grove Charter Middle School in West Ashley for what is believed to be a first-time achievement in his school's history: He received a perfect score on every state standardized test he took during the last school year.

A public charter school serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Orange Grove attracts some high-achieving students, like Ranitha Kumarasinghe, who represented the Lowcountry in the National Spelling Bee as a sixth-grader in March.

But while students at the school regularly earn a perfect score on one test or another, Principal John Clendaniel said he believes no student there ever did what Noah did this spring: earn a perfect score of 950 on both the English and Math sections of South Carolina's SC READY standardized test. State education officials were unable to say last week how many students achieved that feat in 2018.

What is his secret?

"It's always nerve-wracking, but I don't really try to think about it too much," Noah said. "A couple of times I tried to study the night before, but I feel like that always makes me more anxious about it."

Clendaniel said that's the attitude he hopes all his students bring to the test. As a parent and administrator, he knows the barrage of state tests can feel stressful and intimidating, particularly for younger students. 

"He's wise beyond his years, this one," Clendaniel said of Noah.

South Carolina requires students to take a standardized test in English and math every year from third through eighth grade, part of a national push to quantify and track student achievement that ratcheted up with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. 

"It's been crazy. I feel like they've changed it so many times since I started taking it," Noah said. Thanks to a series of legislative mandates, the state has given students different versions of its SC READY and SC PASS tests in the past decade, part of a constant churn of state tests that can make it difficult to assess the performance of schools over time.

The tests play an outsize role in state assessments of schools and districts, including the new state report cards that are expected to come out this week.

Principals, particularly at charter schools like Orange Grove that can have their charters revoked for poor performance, often feel pressure to put up strong numbers on the test.

Some districts have tried using student test scores in their assessments of teachers or to pinpoint areas where students need support. Starting this fall, the state began holding back hundreds of third-graders who fell beneath a low threshold on the state reading test.

The content of the tests is not markedly different from the PACT tests and other tests familiar to previous generations of South Carolinians, including multiple choice and essay sections on the English side. The format is computerized now, so there aren't any No. 2 pencils or bubble-in answer sheets.

But the stakes have never been higher.

"There's so much pressure and weight placed on these things," Clendaniel said. "It's a game you have to play."

Noah hasn't decided what he'll do as an adult. He says he might like to work as a sports anchor or do something related to math, possibly architecture.

If he goes the math route, he has at least one thing going for him already. He took Algebra 1 as a seventh-grader last school year and took the same End of Course exam as high schoolers across the state.

He has received his results from that test, too: a perfect score.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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