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Press Release

State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler on Friday congratulated nine North Dakota seniors who earned perfect 36 composite scores on their ACT exams during their time in high school.

“It is a rare event for a student to get the highest score possible on the ACT. It takes study and hard work as well as intellectual gifts. We all should be proud of the North Dakota students who were able to accomplish this,” Baesler said.  “These nine students are truly among our best and brightest.”

The seniors who registered perfect ACT scores during their North Dakota high school careers are: Kali Bjornson (Devils Lake High School), Philip Dowdell (Fargo North), Alexander Heiser (Bismarck Century), Sean Joyce (Bismarck Legacy), Aiden Krogh (Grand Forks Red River), Joanna Lin (Fargo Davies), Forrest Weintraub (Fargo Davies), Allen Wu (Fargo Davies), and Ellie Zentner, who took the ACT last year as a junior at Bismarck Century. Zentner is now a senior at Elkhorn South High School in Omaha, Neb.

State law requires North Dakota high school juniors to take the ACT or WorkKeys assessments. The ACT test can be taken more than once. Students are scored separately in math, science, English, and reading, and those results are used to compile a composite score, which can range from 1 to 36.

Last year, 7,254 North Dakota high school juniors took the ACT, registering an average composite score of 19.3. An ACT composite of 24 or greater is needed to qualify for a North Dakota academic scholarship, which is a program established by the state Legislature that offers up to $6,000 in tuition assistance during a recipient’s college career.

Below are short biographies of “the 36ers” in the Class of 2020.

Kali Bjornson

Bjornson, a senior at Devils Lake High School, hopes to attend the University of Texas at Dallas, where she wants to study biomedical engineering. She wants to design prosthetics (artificial limbs) and orthotics (external braces for the body).

Bjornson learned of her perfect ACT result while competing at the April 2019 North Dakota Class A state speech tournament in Jamestown. She placed fifth in poetry, interpreting three works about the impact of fracking. While she was at the tournament, her father texted a photo of her ACT score, which had arrived earlier that day. “I looked at my phone in shock,” she said.

Once Bjornson’s high school speech teammates learned of her score, they were hugging her and “bouncing off the walls and cheering, and their parents were the same,” she said.

On top of that, her speech team performed well at the tournament, placing fourth overall. “It was a great day,” Bjornson said.

Philip Dowdell

Dowdell, a senior at Fargo North High School, is mulling whether to attend Columbia University or the University of Minnesota. He intends to major in physics.

While describing his career plans as “still very vague at this point,” Dowdell is interested in nuclear physics. “I would love being able to do research regarding (nuclear physics) or to work to create better, and safer, nuclear energy,” he said.

Dowdell took the ACT twice, in February and April 2019. He had intended the February test to be a warmup for April’s exam -- when his North junior class was scheduled to take the test – and he finished with his perfect 36.

“When I saw my score, I was in the middle of debate practice and my mouth just fell open, and I didn’t say or do anything for what felt like a minute,” he said.

Alexander Heiser

Heiser, a senior at Bismarck’s Century High School, is weighing a choice among three universities – North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota, and Georgia Tech. He is interested in studying mathematics and research.

Heiser took the ACT twice, getting a 35 on his first attempt. His second try was a perfect 36. “He was so psyched” by the score, said his mother, Nancy Heiser. “I remember when he opened it up.”

Sean Joyce

Joyce, a senior at Bismarck’s Legacy High School, plans to attend the University of Alabama at Huntsville in the fall to study aerospace engineering. “The dream is to eventually start building rockets,” he said.

Starting in the seventh grade, Joyce began taking the ACT each year as a way of measuring his academic progress. He scored a 29 on his first exam. He recalled that he was the only person under 5 feet tall in the testing room.

Joyce’s subsequent scores were in the 30s, including 35s in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. He took the test twice as a junior, and reached the pinnacle of 36 on his final ACT exam, which he took in the fall of 2018.

“I mainly just did it to see how I was progressing outside of the state test,” he said. “I wanted to see how I was doing in a setting that was a little more advanced. It was my goal to figure out if I was getting better overall, academically. The 36 was just kind of a surprising thing.”

Aiden Krogh

Krogh, a senior at Grand Forks Red River High School, will be attending Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., to study engineering, most likely mechanical or chemical engineering. “I’ve always been interested in math and science, throughout high school and before,” he said.

Washington University “is a medium-sized university. It’s a good balance between having undergraduate-focused education while still having research opportunities,” he said. “The campus is very pretty, and there are a lot of resources for students.”

Krogh took the ACT in September 2018 after studying and completing several practice tests. He expected to do well on the exam, but his perfect score startled him. “I was kind of freaking out. I had to tell my parents. I didn’t really know what to do,” Krogh said. “I definitely wasn’t expecting to get a 36.”

Joanna Lin

Lin, a senior at Fargo’s Davies High School, plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to participate in the Huntsman Program, in which students earn degrees in international studies and business and have a target language to study (Lin intends to study Spanish). She loves travel and learning languages, and would like to work with a nonprofit or non-governmental organization “with international impact.”

In October 2018, Lin founded Resonate, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that raises money to stage classical music performances and provide music education opportunities in rural communities. Lin is an accomplished clarinet player who is the principal clarinetist in the Fargo-Moorhead Youth Symphony and the Davies Wind Ensemble.

She was “definitely surprised” by her perfect score, Lin said. “I had studied for the test,” she said, “so it was exciting to know my work paid off.”

Forrest Weintraub

Weintraub, a senior at Fargo’s Davies High School, is going to Columbia University this fall to study physics. Columbia, which is located in New York City, “has strong programs in every academic field,” he said.

Weintraub took the ACT once. He said he was not surprised by his perfect score. “The ACT is just a measure of how good you are at taking standardized tests, and I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests,” he said.

Allen Wu

Wu, a senior at Fargo’s Davies High School, plans to attend Yale University to study computer science, although he said he could “see myself going into many different fields within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), ranging from physics to chemistry to statistics to engineering.”

Wu said he chose Yale for its “its excellent academics, welcoming community, and the possibility of forming strong connections that can benefit me long after college.”

Wu scored his 36 in April 2019, the only time he took the ACT. Wu scored a 35 on a practice exam, he said, so he was “mildly surprised” by his perfect score.

Ellie Zentner

Zentner plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she intends to major in neuroscience with a psychology minor. She said she enjoys learning about the brain’s functions in her psychology and anatomy classes. After she finishes undergraduate work, Zentner wants to attend medical school and become a surgeon. 

A senior at Elkhorn South High School in Omaha, Neb., Zentner took the ACT while she was living in Bismarck and attending Century High School. She sat for the exam twice, earning a 33 score in her first attempt and the perfect 36 in December 2018.

She was pleased with her initial 33 score, so “achieving a 36 was such a wonderful surprise,” Zentner said. “I remember my mom woke up early to check for my score and ran to wake me up.”

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