2 La Cañada students nail their ACTs

On average, less than one-tenth of 1% of students — one in 1,000 — who take the ACT college readiness test earn a perfect score of 36, according to test makers. In La Cañada, however, at least two teens have earned that distinction.

Rebecca Cohen, who goes by the nickname "R," a La Cañada resident and junior at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, took the test on Feb. 11. She opted for the standardized test over the competing SAT for its shorter testing period and inclusion of science, a personal passion.

"I only took the ACT," said the 17-year-old aspiring geneticist on Monday. "I've always been good at science. And if you do well on the science (section) it kind of stands out more."

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When she and her mom Paris received the official results on March 6, they were thrilled to see the composite score. The Westridge student was careful not to be boastful with friends, but her mother took to social media to share the good news.

"I had a proud mom moment," Paris Cohen said. "There are people who share their kids' academic achievements or athletic achievements. I have a child who did wonderfully on this test, so I shared it."

Among those who wished R Cohen a hearty congratulations was Westridge college counselor Lynn O'Grady, who's worked with the school's junior class since January. In an email interview Tuesday, she said the La Cañada junior's recent achievement is not a common one.

"A perfect score on the ACT is very rare and is a significant accomplishment for Rebecca," O'Grady said. "We are very pleased for her."

R Cohen admits online tutoring classes taught her some test-taking strategies that took her initial practice score of 35 up to a perfect 36. But she believes it's not so much book smarts as it is understanding concepts that ultimately leads to success.

"I happen to have a lot of knowledge," the student said. "However, comprehension is really what it's about — how fast you can make connections with things."

Some students are especially good test takers. Take, for example, La Cañada High School senior Albert Zhai, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT when he was a junior.

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FOR THE RECORD

3/17, 12:00 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated Albert Zhai took the ACT when he was a sophomore. Zhai clarified he took the exam at the beginning of his junior year.

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Zhai said he took the SAT for practice in eighth grade and then took it again last year for the National Merit Scholars program, which netted him a score of 1590 out of 1600. But it was the ACT that really suited his individual talents as a math and computer science lover.

"At that time the SAT had a vocabulary section — I was not very good at vocabulary," he said Monday.

His perfect score pleased mom Hui Su and dad Chengxing Zhai, both employees of La Cañada's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The uncommon victory — paired with the senior Spartan's involvement with the National Merit Scholars program and his second-place win at last year's California State Science Fair — made him a standout candidate for his school of choice, Caltech. He's been accepted, but has yet to commit.

With a year to go before she has to commit to a college, R Cohen said she is leaning toward New York City's Columbia University.

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Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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