No Mistake, These Five Kids Have All the Answers: They Scored Perfect 1600s on Their Sat Exams

updated 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Long after the numbers have become irrelevant, millions of Americans remember their scores on their college entrance exams, the formidable Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing exam. In extreme cases of pride or paranoia, some still use their scores to measure their worth in relation to bosses, tennis rivals, even lovers. Critics of the SAT tests complain that a) rich kids get an unfair edge by taking pricey prep courses, b) the tests reward rote cramming instead of thought, c) poor kids get burned by silly questions about polo and golf, and d) the tests favor males. Yet every year a handful of students achieves the seemingly impossible: a perfect combined score of 1600 on the verbal and math portions of the SAT or a perfect 35 on the ACT. Nine students out of 1.7 million—.000005 percent—got perfect SAT scores in 1985-86, and all of them were male. The test-givers won't divulge the names, but PEOPLE has tracked down five students with perfect SATs. None of them thinks the test should be cleared of all charges against it, but together they offer one moral: With smarts and cool, some people can beat the system. Here are five who did.

THIS MISSOURI COMPUTER ACE POLISHES NO APPLES

When James West was 2 years old, his mother, Peggy, thought he was a sweet but somewhat simple child. His older sister, Elizabeth, had begun reading at 3, but James showed no precocious-ness. "I guess he was bored," Peggy says, "because one day when he was 5 he sat in the backseat of the Volkswagen and taught himself to read." Another tip-off came six years later when James took an oral aptitude test. "He answered questions for three hours without a miss," Peggy recalls. "His performance went off the charts." Last November James proved that was no fluke: He got 1600 on his SATs.

All his testing success hasn't gone to West's head, or his body for that matter: He wears fatigue overalls and black, studded leather arm guards, spends his happiest hours tinkering with his '77 Volare and doesn't worry overmuch about grades—they're A's—at Rock Bridge Senior High in Columbia, Mo. "You don't really think about him until you sit down and have a conversation," says principal Wayne Walker. "Then he's so bright, it scares you." Little wonder. When asked, West has opinions on almost everything. The school's honor society, he has said, "represents the antithesis of all that is good and noble in humanity. The people who they think of as leaders are skilled at bootlicking and being sheepish." Sports? "The voyeurism in spectator sports is disgusting and counterproductive," he has declared. "The audience is essentially brain dead." He got so fed up with the student council this year that he started an opposition government. His Central Committee sponsored a "Rock Bridge Seniors for Segregation Campaign" that parodied racism by decorating the drinking fountains with labels that read "Sophomores Only" and "Humans Only."

James's father, Kenneth, is an engineer with an oil company, and the family has lived all over the globe, not always to James's satisfaction. "Saudi Arabia is as close to hell as I think it would be possible to approach on earth," he says. But he credits a tough program at his school in Holland with helping him breeze through his classes when the Wests moved to Missouri two years ago. The night before his SATs he stayed up until 3 a.m. watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on TV. He found the test easy, but not fair. "What it tests is your ability to answer questions under pressure," he says.

In fact West, who will attend Reed College in Portland, Ore. next year, thinks the space war games he programs on his two home computers are a better demonstration of his intelligence. "For one game I had to research pretty much everything that's known about planetology," he says. "It really amazed me when my teacher spent the first quarter of the physics course telling us things I already knew from the games I play."

A NEBRASKA WHIZ WANTS TO SEEM A REGULAR GUY

A mildly historic event took place at the annual picnic of the German Club at Harry A. Burke High School in Omaha, Nebr. this year. After the ice-cream-eating contest, a tall blond boy grabbed a girl and mashed her face into the leftovers, leading to the German Club's first all-out ice-cream war. Greg Stutheit, who started it, nonetheless emerged with his model-student image intact. His German teacher, Elizabeth Hoffman, still calls him "the kindest, nicest, most caring person."

Smart, too. Stutheit, 18, has won national and local awards in math, history and science, earned a full scholarship to Purdue next year, found time to work as a volunteer at a center for abused children and is fourth in his class only because he took some low-ranking painting courses to polish his skills as a surrealist. "We thought he was special when he was born," says his mother, Carolyn, who recently quit work as a Realtor to spend time with her two sons (her husband, Roy, teaches English at Burke). "He was very entertaining as a child. He'd go into the bedroom and come out dressed as a mailman. He'd pore through the encyclopedia as he watched Saturday morning cartoons." The day the SAT scores came in the mail, she recalls, he opened them and beamed, but "he had an old friend standing on the step, and Greg didn't tell him. I guess he thought it would be bragging."

Stutheit, clearly, wants people to know he's normal. "Tell about the time you kicked me out of class," he begs his physics teacher, Bob Shirck. Shirck balks, so Greg tells it. "He was teaching stuff I already knew, and I was doing other schoolwork and got kicked out," he says proudly, but he gets a D on that story. "I didn't kick him out," the teacher says. "I allowed him to go to the library to study for his SATs. Obviously, it was very successful."

A BARGAIN PUTS A DALLAS BOY IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT

When Daniel Pak took the SATs as a junior, he scored an impressive 1540 points. "But when I told my father," recalls Pak, "he looked up and said, 'Well, too bad.' " Last November the elder Pak persuaded his son to drag himself out of bed at 7 a.m. to face the ordeal again. Daniel had one overriding reason to obey: If he hit 1600, his father promised to buy him a car.

Sungha Pak has reason to drive his son. An ex-professor of German literature in Korea, Sungha has failed to become fluent in English since he and his wife, Shiella, a nurse, emigrated in 1970. As a result, he now works as a maintenance repairman, and he is determined that no other family member will fall short of potential. "My parents didn't have to remind me to work hard," Daniel says. "I just did it. It was always easy for me."

Nearly everybody at Hillcrest High, in suburban Dallas, regards Daniel with some awe. "Listen to his vocabulary!" says National Merit Scholar Brian Dunn. "Just being around him has improved my test scores." He turns to Daniel and adds with a laugh, "You're my hero." Says Latin teacher Mike Flewharty: "He's smart enough not only to translate Virgil but to translate it into very nice poetry." Besides all that, Pak is captain of the tennis team, a violinist with the orchestra, a copy editor, writer and artist for the school newspaper and has discovered that "I like to party. I haven't really found anything yet I can't do well," he adds, in a tone both cocky and self-mocking.

Pak wanted to go to Stanford next year, but his father insisted on Harvard and Daniel yielded. Things could be worse. He has all summer to tool around town in his brand-new black Toyota MR2. "I celebrated the score," he says, "when I got the car."

A REBEL PHILOSOPHER GOES IT ALONE IN WISCONSIN

The front door of the white house opens and a young man appears, looking very out of place in Whitewater, Wis. Fresh from the shower, he wears a loosely knotted black kimono, his hair is cut in a New Wave look and his dark eyes ponder the floor. A while later he reappears wearing black jeans and a "Question Authority" T-shirt and plunks himself down in the middle of the living room sofa, leaving a guest no choice but to sit in a chair, which immediately collapses. "Oh," he says, "one of the legs is broken."

Daniel Thomas, 18, a senior at Whitewater High School, readily concedes that "I'm pretty much the literary cliché of the outsider," and he's not alone. "He's kind of a private person," says guidance counselor Sally Ward. "Some kids you can get close to. Dan's not like that." Adds social studies teacher Judy Zigler: "He's a beautiful writer, but he never said a word in class." Thomas ranks only 13 among the seniors, partly because he disliked lab work such as dissecting a fetal pig and got a C+ in biology. The night before his tests, Thomas stayed late at a Halloween party, drinking cinnamon schnapps and watching movies that showed real on-camera deaths. "There were these girls—these airheads—they were all being severely grossed out by the movie," he reports. "They didn't see the humor in it. I'm not particularly big on those movies but I'll watch them at a Halloween party." Still, he confesses of the next morning's tests, "You can't feel completely comfortable about something that could change your life. I had a little trouble with the vocabulary."

Despite his perfect score, Thomas, who will go to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. on partial scholarship, says, "My weakness is my extracurricular record. I've made it a practice to stay as far away from Whitewater High as possible." That isn't entirely true. As a founder of the Physics Club, he drafted a parody announcement that Whitewater would refuse to participate in research for Reagan's Star Wars. "Our position was that we'd be glad to accept the defense grants," he says. "We just wouldn't do the work."

"Dan's not a crowd pleaser or a crowd follower and never will be," says his mother, Maralee, a saleswoman for a printing company. "I'm proud of that." Her son's skills became clear when he wrote his name the week of his second birthday. Because Maralee and ex-husband Ronald, also a salesperson, make modest salaries, paying even part of the college costs will be hard, so Maralee will move to a less expensive house. "It's worth it," she says. "I've always told Dan, 'If you work hard, we'll work hard.' "

Thomas will study philosophy at Carleton—"It's everything about everything," he says—but ever since kindergarten he has wanted to be a writer. "Nobody writes great books anymore," he complains. Until he produces one, he has his SAT laurels to tide him over. "It's an objective score that's measurable with an actual number," he says. "Of course, the correspondence between tests and real life is much less than I would like."

AN EX-NERD IN ROCHESTER LEARNS TO LOOSEN UP

"I can't use all my energies on this exam," Jerome O'Neill told himself just before his SATs in June 1986. Later that day, he had to have enough steam left to play in a production by a teenage acting troupe in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. "I didn't take the SAT all that seriously," concedes O'Neill, 17, a senior at Monroe Junior-Senior High. "It just proves that if you're not competitive, you'll do better."

Easy for him to say. O'Neill makes a lot of difficult things look easy. In addition to acting, he plays piano in the school jazz band, studies the saxophone, writes for the school paper and literary magazine, takes creative writing at the University of Rochester, heads the school math team, served on the winning team for a local TV quiz show, sees his girlfriend a few times a week and keeps a 5.2 grade point average on a scale that counts 4.0 as an A—he'd have done better except he once got a B in gym. All those credits could have made O'Neill an overbearing overachiever but they haven't. "Many of the people in this school, even some of the staff, don't put life in perspective the way Jerome does," says Monroe principal Robert Pedzich. "That's what makes him so nice. He takes time to smell the roses."

It was not always thus. O'Neill's eighth-grade teacher, Susan Craft, says he used to be "much nerdier." Back then he wore thick glasses and kept his shirt buttoned to the top. "I grew up and loosened up," says O'Neill, and now he wears red suspenders, sneakers decorated with palm trees, and his father's Army jacket, with a peace sign on the back. He also broadcast the joke of the day this year over the school PA system, but he says, "They were really bad. One faculty member liked it, but everyone else hated it so I stopped." O'Neill has loosened up so much he makes some people sore. "The SAT didn't seem to matter to him, but I worked really hard," says senior Elizabeth Jarrett. "And I just did average. It made me mad."

Jerome O'Neill, a technical writer, and his wife, Kathleen, a housing counselor, insisted their son attend Monroe, an urban, integrated public school, so that he would get to know a diversity of people. Their non-elitist attitude rubbed off. O'Neill, who is headed for Oberlin College in Ohio, isn't impressed by his perfection. "I think it's silly to compliment someone for getting 1600 when so many people get so close," he says. He's just as happy about another accomplishment. This year he veered away from his honors program to take international cooking—and got an A+. When you're hot, you're hot.

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