Five Whitney Young Magnet High School students have scored a perfect 36 on the ACT this year, a triumph the selective Chicago high school is touting as a personal best.
Chicago Public Schools officials don’t even administer the ACT anymore, so juniors Jack Fetsch, Jake Gerenraich, Sophie Ljung, Charlie Nevins and Dorothy Tarasul volunteered to sit for the test one weekend last month.
Among the class of 2017, just 2,700 students in the entire country managed a composite 36 score — that’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 2 million students who took ACT last year, according to the testing company. In Illinois, just 248 of 134,901 students who graduated in 2017 scored 36 points on the four math, English, reading and science components.
That means they correctly answered at least 211 of 215 questions on the timed exam; testing expert Matthew Pietrafetta calls that a remarkable feat.
“To be at perfect or near-perfect levels in all these academic domains indicates a student who has achieved mastery of essential, rigorous, college-readiness curriculum,” said Pietrafetta, who runs Academic Approach, a Chicago-based tutoring company that has done test prep for a number of CPS schools.
But Jack, 17, and Dorothy, 16, downplayed their accomplishment.
“A score’s just a score,” Dorothy said. “It can’t do much for you except to signal to a college that you well on a test,” she said. “Thinking it’s life-changing would be so naive.”
Taking ACT also was good strategy for college applications, she said.
“You can submit one score or both scores. Taking both is advantageous. Having the option between the two is comforting because it means if you do well on one, you might be able to do well on the other one.”
Jack called it a “morale boost in the middle of junior year.”
“We all worked hard for it,” he said. And what they did specifically to prepare was get to know this test’s specific format and style under its time constraints.
“People try to relearn concepts,” Dorothy said. “From what I’ve seen, we all just focused on mastering the format of the test. You already know the math, reading and science concepts you need to know.”
Jack printed out PDFs and worked through them with a timer to “recognize the tricks they’re trying to play on you.”
“So we knew more of what they were looking for. The questions are really repetitive. Every single practice test starts to feel the same after a while.”
Whitney Young, 211 S. Laflin St., attracts many of the city’s brightest students (among them former First Lady Michelle Obama) who vie to get the district’s oldest selective-enrollment school with near-perfect grades and attendance in elementary school, plus top scores on an admissions exam.
Its average ACT average score was 28 for the class of 2017, third-highest in the city and far above the district’s average of 19.
“Most years, we have had a student achieve a perfect score on the SAT or ACT. We have never had five in one year,” longtime principal Joyce Kenner said. “I think it is to the credit of our hard-working students and dedicated parents and teachers that have prepared these students to achieve at this level.”
The achievement stands out even more considering that CPS stopped paying attention to the ACT, once the dominant college admissions exam in the Midwest. Illinois officially has replaced it with the SAT, which is more popular on the coasts as its preferred test for college. The Illinois State Board of Education now foots the bill for about 150,000 juniors attending public schools who take the SAT on a school day.
Yet a number of students still volunteer to sit for the ACT in the hopes of scoring higher than the SAT or impressing admissions officers at colleges that may prefer ACT scores.
SAT will be administered in April. The district reported just two CPS students earned perfect SAT scores last year.