CERRITOS — When asked, Whitney High School students readily acknowledge that they are the district nerds, preferring calculus and chemistry to ceramics and shop courses.
But that's all right, say students of this honors-oriented high school. Their nose-to-the-grindstone approach has earned them the ranking of No. 1 academic public school in the state this year.
Last week, Whitney High administrators learned that this year's graduating class racked up the top score on the California Accountability Program test.
About 130 of Whitney's 147 graduating 12th-graders took the 1 1/2-hour test in December. Although Whitney students have consistently scored in the top 10 since the test was first conducted six years ago, this is the first time Whitney has come out on top.
They recorded an average combined reading and mathematics score of 823, said Dennis Brent, a Whitney High administrator. A perfect score is 1,000.
"I was really excited," said Kelly Smith, a 17-year-old senior who will study political science this fall at UC San Diego. Smith spent a bright, breezy Tuesday morning swapping signatures with classmates and laughing over a slide-show presentation of campus life during the past year.
The CAP test, administered each year to seniors attending the state's 1,203 public high schools, rates the effectiveness of the schools' educational programs, said Tom Fong, a research analyst for the state Department of Education.
Whitney, which enrolls honors students after they take a rigorous entrance exam, has been vying for the academic championship with rival Lowell High School in San Francisco, which placed second this year. Since testing began, Lowell has placed either first or second in the state, officials said.
Tuesday morning, while students of this six-year academic magnet school in the ABC Unified School District helped build a podium for the evening's commencement exercise, administrators considered how best to honor the graduating students for their achievement.
"These kids really deserve something," Whitney Principal Robert S. Beall said. "This year we did it. They all worked so hard during the year."
As a magnet school, Whitney High attracts students most likely to go to college. At least 50% of Whitney students are identified as academically gifted, Brent said.
Whitney students study intensified mathematics and science programs, and shun more traditional features of high school life, such as shop classes. The high school has a basketball team but no football team.
Students also enroll in off-campus college courses through special programs offered by colleges and universities in the area, Brent said.
School officials said it came as no surprise to administrators that the seniors scored highest in the state.
Noting that 96.5% of this year's graduating class is going on to a college or university in the fall, Beall said Whitney students are groomed for academic achievement from their first day of classes. Students who attend the high school must rank in the top 10% of students in the ABC district.
But Beall also attributed the success of Whitney students to the fact that they can enter the school as seventh-graders.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Beall said. In conventional intermediate schools, "by the time you find out what the kids need, they're gone." The school's eighth-grade students, who took a similar CAP test, placed seventh in the state.
"It's sort of long-term training," said Rose McCormack, 14, as she helped unfold chairs on a grassy area before the graduation ceremony. McCormack, who attended an intermediate school when she arrived with her parents from Indiana last year, transferred to Whitney for the challenge.
Even seventh-grade students have been motivated by the test results. "The teachers are getting us ready now" for next year's test of eighth-grade students, said 12-year-old Jennifer Choi. "The teachers make learning worthwhile."
Senior Vanessa Rarick, 17, who will study biology at UC Irvine, said the teachers "work you harder here" but also instill pride in learning.
Seventeen-year-old Patrick Simbal, who has been accepted at USC, agreed that Whitney teachers have made the difference.
"Our teachers make themselves available to any question," Simbal said.
However, Dana Bond, 18, showed that even "Whitney High School nerds" can have a good time. After the commencement ceremony, he said, he was "going to party!"