Until last week, most of his classmates at Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood did not know that high school junior Matthew Ehren aced the ACT college entrance exam.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t proud of the perfect score, a 36 that put him in the top one-tenth of one percent of those who take the test annually. He’d just planned to keep it secret because he didn’t want to be defined or limited by it. “I don’t like to base myself solely on test scores,” said Ehren.
This Saturday, when the next round of tests is administered nationally, odds are that more Minnesotans will tally a 36. In February, when the tests were last given, seven students from across the state achieved perfect scores, bringing the total number of Minnesota high school juniors and seniors still in school who have aced the exam to more than 25, a Star Tribune survey shows.
That success continues a nearly decadelong trend. For eight years running, Minnesota has been best in the nation in the ACT among states in which at least half of students took the exam. Last year, about 74 percent, or 44,676, of Minnesota graduates took the test, which covers the areas of English, math, reading and science. The average composite score was 23, up from 22.8 in 2012, out of the possible 36.
Nationally, more than 1.6 million students took the ACT in 2012, the first year it passed the SAT as the most popular college admissions exam.
When the annual state-by-state study was released last August, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that Minnesotans could take pride in both the state’s overall ranking as well as the fact that each of its student subgroups — with the exception of Asian students — had outperformed their national counterparts.
For those who score the perfect 36, there is no standing still.
Anna Kalkman of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul aced the test last June, between her sophomore and junior years. Friends would tell her that she was set, that she had it made, she recalled recently. Kalkman had to remind them that she still had two years of high school left to go.
At Buffalo High School, Aaron Hamann, a senior who notched his perfect score in the fall of his junior year, said that he patterned his drive after that of an older friend who scored a 36 before him. For Hamann, that has meant pushing to become a National Merit Scholar and rising to the level of third-degree black belt in Taekwondo.
Which brings to mind Kelvin Loke, a student at Minnetonka High School, a 36er who is considering studying pre-med with an emphasis in neuroscience — and who has a black belt in Kung Fu.
It’s getting so you can’t tell these high-achievers apart.
Talk to college counselors and they will tell you that the attitude of these students — who aim to be well-rounded, to accomplish more than just the perfect score — dovetails nicely with the realities of today’s college admissions process.
A high level of character. A compelling personal story. That’s what can make the difference at prestigious institutions where off-the-charts test scores are assumed.
At Cretin-Derham Hall, which now has two 36ers, students are encouraged to get involved in community service. In the end, that helps not only the people they serve, but the students, too.
Kalkman’s classmate, Maria Neuzil, posted a 36 late last year. She plays the clarinet and earned all-conference honorable mention in swimming for three years.
Kalkman is active in soccer, speech, theater and choir. Her mother, Cathy Kalkman, noted that the two students — who played together as children — also take high-level courses, adding: “So much in this day and age is about channeling into one thing. It’s so neat for them to do all these parts of themselves and to keep it up.”
Brian Lundell, who teaches Advanced Placement calculus at Cretin-Derham Hall, said of Kalkman: “Anna’s work ethic is a great complement to her innate ability. She’s a self-starter. Her questions show perception and inquisitiveness.”
She also recently ran for student council co-president.
A perfect ACT score does not necessarily mean that a student’s test was error-free.
Hamann said that he tallied a 36 on two sections of his test and a 35 on the other two, leaving a composite score of 35.5, which then was rounded up to 36. He said that his older friend scored a 35.75, adding more fuel to Hamann’s competitive, perfectionist nature.
“It hasn’t been too difficult for me to keep my focus on my classes,” he said last week. “I never really saw getting a 36 as a final destination, but more of a goal and a benchmark.”
Ehren, of Mounds Park Academy, spoke by phone just before a “Composition and American Literature” final. He estimated having put about six hours of study into that test, and continues to work just as hard as always, he said.
His status as a 36er became public after ACT reported that a Mounds Park Academy student had aced the exam in February. Other juniors who posted perfect scores then include two St. Paul public schools students — Vince Dzik of Central High and Ellen Purdy of Como Park Senior High — and Jon Thielen of Buffalo High School.
As for his initial reluctance to share his score, Ehren said: “There are so many other things that are important … things like leadership and work ethic.” He is a math team standout, and a golf team member now anxious for the snow to finish melting.
His 13 handicap in none too shabby. But, he figures, there is still room to improve.