She is an interested, inspired learner. She’s really bright. Special.
That’s been evident for years and was made clear again when
R Cohen, a 17-year-old La Cañada Flintridge resident, scored a perfect 36 on the ACT college readiness exam in February.
Acing the test appears it will present new opportunities. It’s already led to a surge in correspondence from premier colleges and has attracted the attention of local press. But Cohen, proving she’s wise beyond her years, knows this: It’s just a score on a test.
“This is low-key hypocritical coming from me, but so much of us place our self-worth in these standardized tests that are really not a good indicator of how intelligent you are,” she said. “I’ve seen people get lower scores than they wanted and they’re totally devastated, like, ‘I’m not a smart person!’ But these tests are how well you know what the test-makers are going to do.”
Nonetheless, that understanding, and the score posted by Cohen — whose full first name is Rebecca, and who is a junior at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena — is remarkably rare.
According to the ACT, less than one-tenth of 1% of students who take the exam earn a top score. In 2016, only 2,235 out of nearly 2.1 million graduates who took the ACT earned a composite score of 36 on the exam, which tests students on their aptitude in English, math, reading and science.
Locally, there are an inordinate amount of super-scholars: According to Ed Colby, the senior director of the ACT’s media and public relations department, six students at La Cañada High School in the past five years have earned composite scores of 36 — enough that their identities aren’t common knowledge among the school’s counseling department.
For Cohen, posting one of those perfect scores was hard to fathom: “It was a little bit shocking,” she said.
Her mother, Paris Cohen, decided she’d make the news public on Facebook (after some deliberation about it with her younger children, who she said worried it would seem like bragging, but who also seemed emboldened by their sister’s feat).
“My friends will post that their child got an amazing goal at a game, why can’t we talk about these amazing academic accomplishments?” Paris Cohen said. “I’m proud of her; this is incredible.”
It’s the kind of thing R Cohen’s 1st-grade teacher at Paradise Canyon Elementary School might have predicted.
“She came in already knowing how to read,” said Katie Budde, who now teaches 6th-graders at the school. “So rather than teaching her the way I was teaching the rest of the 1st-graders how to read, it was a matter of giving her an option to read books at a higher level, and a chance to explore some of the things she was inquisitive about through optional activities and extra books and just honoring her questions — well, not every single one; she asked a lot of questions.”
R Cohen — with her 3.9 cumulative grade-point average to go along with her ACT perfection — dreams of attending Columbia and studying molecular biology and genetics.
“I always wanted to do something that makes a difference, and I know that sounds super-cliché, but I want to be one of the innovators, the scientific minds who uses technology to shape the future of things,” she said.
“And,” she added, “I know I got lucky.”
She’s learned that much from her weekly sessions tutoring underprivileged students via the Hathaway Sycamores organization.
“I tutor 3rd- and 4th-graders, and seeing them read, I think back to 4th-grade me and I’m going, ‘There’s definitely a huge gap,’” Cohen said. “And there’s a 1st-grade girl who whizzes through her entire math section of her homework packet, and I’m just looking at her like, ‘You’re so smart, but you’re probably not going to have amazing opportunities because of your family background.’”
Cohen said she would advise the students she tutors — and others — who plan to take the ACT to take advantage of readily available practice tests.
“It’s not like you have to go on the black market to find a practice test,” she said. “You can find every single test for the past I don’t know how many years and it’s just a super-good indicator.”
Before the test, Cohen said she signed up for seven online tutoring sessions with Revolution Prep, which asked that she take a practice test beforehand. When she did, she got a 34 or 35, and so her tutors had little to tell her other than to dispense general test-taking tips.
Tip such as: “Generally, it’s not that the right answer is glaringly right in any way; it’s that the wrong answers are somehow wrong.”
And: “For the science section, it’s not actually about knowledge, it’s about interpreting information; it’s reading comprehension and being able to look at the information and make predictions.”
Also: “Eat breakfast.”
And maybe most importantly: “Don’t put your self-worth in a standardized, multiple-choice test. It’s not an indicator of who you are.”