Clayton High School
Tong Zhao was pretty confident he could get enough correct answers to earn the highest possible score when he took the Advanced Placement Chemistry test last May.
Nearly one year later, Zhao, a senior at Clayton High School, was stunned to learn he had accomplished something quite a bit more rare — he was one of three people in the world to to get a perfect score.
“I was honestly pretty surprised,” Zhao said.
Of the 159,677 students to take the notoriously mind-crushing test, Zhao was one of only three to earn every single point. Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux, Director of Media Relations with the College Board, confirmed to the Clayton Times this week his perfect score amounted to just 0.002 percent of students who took the 2017 AP Chemistry exam.
AP exams are reported on a 5-point scale, where a “5” is equivalent to earning a grade of “A” in the corresponding college course.
The AP Chemistry exam consists of two parts, the first consisting of 60 multiple-choice questions students have to answer within 90 minutes. The second is a seven-question “free response” section, in which students answer questions relating to hypothetical lab data.
Zhao got every possible point in both sections. The note from the College Board that followed, telling Zhao of his perfect score, was a pleasant assurance that he had obtained a 5 and then some.
“The envelope just kind of sat around for a few days before anyone opened it. I thought it was some sort of advertising, so I didn’t even bother, and I think it was my father who finally opened it,” Zhao said. “I feel very lucky to have gotten it.”
Members of the administration at Clayton High School were equally surprised, so much so that it didn’t quite register at first.
“I thought, ‘Great, a 5, he must’ve done really really well,'” Clayton Prinicipal Dr. Dan Gutchewsky said. “Then when they qualified him by saying he’s one of three people in the world to get a perfect score on the AP Chem exam, it kind of put it in perspective for me. It kind of went from outstanding to extraordinary.”
Zhao gives some of the credit to his teacher, Nathan Peck, whom he said helped him and the other students prepare for the AP Chemistry exam.
Peck had the students take practice tests and work through a few free response problems, but the 34-year veteran teacher said Zhao didn’t really need his help.
“For the test itself I’m sure he put a lot of time in it, but he’s been doing that from the get-go,” Peck said. “I don’t really think he needed to study or re-learn a lot for the test. He was totally ready for it beforehand. I think he probably, honestly got a good night sleep beforehand as opposed to studying.”
Peck said Zhao was also perfect in his class last spring, where he went the entire semester without missing a single point on homework and nailed a 100 percent score on the semester exam.
For Zhao, it was always about wanting to learn more, even if it wasn’t being taught in Peck’s class.
“He was very interested in chemistry concepts. We’d talk about stuff in class and he would read about it and then have conversations with me about stuff that we don’t even do in AP,” Peck said. “They were sort of beyond the scope of what we’d be doing in class, so he was definitely taking it to the next step.”
Prior to the exam, Zhao won a local Chemistry Olympiad, which qualified him to take national exam. About 1,000 kids qualify for the national test. Out of that group, Zhao was one of 20 in the country selected for a trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to learn even more about chemistry.
“I guess some of that carried over onto the AP test,” Zhao said.
While he seems to be the perfect chemistry student, Zhao is involved in much more outside the classroom. Next month, Zhao will compete at the Washington University Chemistry Tournament on April 7, and just last weekend he was in Kansas City with his Science Bowl team.
Zhao still isn’t sure what he wants to major in college or where he’s going, but he’s leaning towards a combination of computer science and chemical engineering.
No matter what he chooses to study or where he chooses to study it, he’ll likely be pretty close to perfect at it.
“He’s definitely been the top performing student that I’ve taught in my 34 years,” said Peck, who noted Zhao is the first student he’s known to land a perfect score on the AP Chemistry exam. “If there was a score of 6 he’d get one.”