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When Madison Central High School sophomore Leo Mei took the two-hour-long Advanced Placement Psychology test last spring, he had no idea he’d be one of six students in the world to attain a perfect score. There were 262,700 total test takers from all over the globe.
“It’s just phenomenal,” said Madison Central High School principal Sean Brewer.
Advanced Placement, or AP, courses give high school students a chance to take on college-level work. And those who score a three or higher on the AP exam can earn college credits for it.
State education leaders have long touted the importance of Mississippi students’ access to AP offerings, and AP participation is a component of school districts’ yearly accountability ratings, or grades, given by the state education department.
Mei, now a junior, is humble when talking about his achievement.
He attributes it to a lot of hard work, which he has seen modeled by his parents, who are both medical researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He said both came from poor families in China.
“Through hard work, they made it to some of the top universities in China and eventually came here” to the United States, he said. “They have one of the biggest success stories ever, and that motivates me.”
And he has a passion for the subject. He would often research topics covered in class that interested him on his own.
“It’s about how the human mind works, and that’s one of the most mysterious things that science is (still) learning about today,” he said of psychology.
While Mei remains humble about his intelligence, his teachers and those who know him don’t mince words when asked about him.
Mei’s AP Psychology teacher Brett Mayfield refers to him as “absolutely brilliant.” He said he doesn’t know many teachers who could make a perfect score on the test.
“It does have some recall questions, but most of the questions are application … They require the students not just remember the concepts but be able to apply the concepts in real life situations,” he said.
The free response portion is particularly difficult to do perfectly, Mayfield said.
“There’s very specific criteria to make sure there’s a breadth and depth of knowledge (in the student). Those questions are very centered on analysis and application — just getting a perfect score on the free response is impressive in and of itself.”
Now a junior, Mei is taking six Advanced Placement courses, which he describes as “fun.”
“They really are!” he said after several reporters, administrators and teachers let out a chuckle at a press event for Mei earlier this month. “They cover complex topics that are really interesting in themselves, but I also have really great teachers.”
And luckily, Mei, who has been in the district since fourth grade, is at a school that has a robust offering of advanced courses and a culture that encourages academics. Madison County School District also pays for one Advanced Placement test for every student each year — no small expense as the tests run at about $100 each.
At Madison Central High School, where about 1,200 students attend, around 400 AP exams are given each year to students, according to the school’s testing coordinator.
Mayfield, who now works at the Mississippi Department of Education, said the school has led the way for years in terms of AP offerings.
“We started new AP programs and re-evaluated our programs regularly. We really did try to give students rigorous instruction in those AP courses,” he said.
Brewer says he’s constantly awed by the culture of both the students and community.
“We’re blessed to have a collection of students who want to be challenged and have a drive and a passion to succeed academically,” said Brewer.
He said he will often visit some of the classrooms just to listen to the discussions the students are having.
“The depth on the topics (they talk about) is fantastic,” he said.
When Mei isn’t immersed in homework and other research, he’s usually reading science fiction, his favorite genre, or playing the piano.
At the end of this year, though, much of his time will undoubtedly be spent applying to the nation’s top colleges and universities — though the 16-year-old says he doesn’t know yet where he might want to go.
He does think he will probably major in biology as a precursor to his future medical education.
“I want to be a doctor. How living beings work and how they collapse, and how to fix that is something I’ve always been really interested in,” he said.