Davis High senior one of 12 in world to ace calculus exam

Davis Senior High School student Matthew Cheung is one of only 12 worldwide to achieve a perfect score on his Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam, an extraordinary accomplishment that he is taking in stride.

Cheung, 18, said Tuesday that he was fairly confident of a good showing when he took the exam at the high school in May because he scored well on the final exam for his calculus class. Typically, students don’t learn their precise AP scores beyond rankings on a scale of 1 to 5.

A total of 302,531 students took the test last year. Those scoring high enough on the five-point scale can receive college credit.

“I was pretty confident I was going to get a 5,” he said. He said it crossed his mind that he might have answered every question correctly.

“I figured that I would never know, since they don’t tell you what percent you got,” he said. “And I didn’t know they made an exception for perfect scores.”

The local revelation that Cheung is one of the 12 perfect calculus AB test-takers comes days after Los Angeles high school student Cedrick Argueta made national headlines and scored an invitation to the White House from President Barack Obama for his perfect score on the same exam.

Cheung didn’t learn of his performance until Davis Senior High School Principal William Brown walked into his AP physics class Jan. 21.

On Tuesday, Cheung took to the classroom white board and walked students in his AP calculus BC class through a warmup to the day’s lesson: using differential equations to model functions. He worked through the warmup with relaxed, confident analysis. Calculus BC builds on what students learn in Calculus AB.

“The cool thing about Matt is he’s very unassuming in the sense that you wouldn’t know what level of math he is in because he wouldn’t go out and promote it,” said David Blackwell, Cheung’s calculus BC teacher. “More or less, he goes about his business and gets his work done. What’s cool about the class as a whole is that it’s kind of competitive. But if one person is not getting it, they’ll stop and help one another out.

“Some kids don’t want to ask questions. But these kids really want to know. They encourage each other to ask questions; they argue about math. I think that’s why they do so well.”

Cheung and his mother, Julie, said the family tree does not appear to include math aficionados. The lone exception is Cheung’s older brother. Michael Cheung, 21, is a math major at Occidental College in Los Angeles and interning at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Julie Cheung is a health care program manager in the corporate offices of Sutter Health. Warren Cheung, Matthew’s father, is a senior physical therapist at Kaiser Permanente, she said.

“I admit that it likely didn’t come from my side of the family,” she said. “We have attorneys, health care, special education and social service (professions). But neither side of the family has anything to do with math. No engineers.”

Matthew Cheung said he knew at an early age that he liked math.

“It always came easily to me,” he said.

At age 5 or 6, he tracked the hefty scores in his head while playing the card game Yu-Gi-Oh! with his brother. His mother said she asked him about it once, and he said he could see the numbers in his head.

In third grade, he recalled, he aced a competitive flip-card math game his teacher played with students at Marguerite Montgomery Elementary School in Davis.

Cheung said his older brother was proud to learn of his exam results. So were his parents.

“They’re my No. 1 fans,” he said.

He’s waiting now for word from the half-dozen private colleges and University of California campuses in Los Angeles and San Diego that have his applications.

Julie Cheung said her son is a self-motivated person.

“Mattie has always been very self-directed,” she said. “We have really never pushed. We supported him when he expressed interest. We have not done anything unique.”

Cheung said he tries to finish his homework before he leaves school, often in the library, after classes are finished and before basketball or soccer practice.

“I try to get it out of the way right away,” he said.

Principal Brown said he was blown away by the letter from the College Board.

“A lot has gone right for you to be one of 12 in the world,” Brown said, describing the accomplishment as a culmination of a strong work ethic and preparation.