"Average" students in Palo Alto may be smarter than they think: They are competing in a "rarefied" atmosphere laden with high achievers, school board members said Tuesday night.
A student with test scores in Palo Alto's 25th percentile ranks in the 75th percentile when compared to other students in California or the nation as a whole, according to data compiled by the school district.
"In some ways this makes it so hard on the kids in our community, because they think the whole world is like (Palo Alto)," school board member Barbara Klausner said.
"Do they realize they're in this very rarefied atmosphere?"
The school board Tuesday reviewed standardized test data showing that Gunn High School ranks first in the state in SAT test results and Palo Alto High School ranks fourth. In metrics from advanced placement exams to California STAR tests, both Gunn and Paly rank among the very top among California's 1,000 high schools.
"These numbers are just phenomenal. It's absurd how high these numbers are," Klausner said, referring to a chart comparing Palo Alto's mean SAT score of 1920 with the California mean of 1511 and the national mean of 1509.
"I'd like to see a graphic to offer to our students to show them what it means that you're in the 25th percentile in Palo Alto but if we put you in a picture with 100 kids around the state and the country, you're in the 75th percentile."
Subdued by the death last week of a Gunn junior at the Caltrain tracks -- the fourth Caltrain death of a Palo Alto student in six months -- board members honed in with questions about mid-level students in the district's highly competitive high schools.
"I want to get to the issue of the percentage of students who take just one AP. Students go off from this district and find themselves at the top of the class in college and say, 'I never knew I was so smart,'" board member Camille Townsend said.
"I think this is an issue in our district. Parents say, 'My kid, who is seen as in the middle of the group here, isn't encouraged to take even one AP. What's the number of kids who take at least one AP?'"
School officials could not offer a precise number, but estimated that between 50 and 60 percent of students take at least one advanced placement class in high school.
Student board representatives from both Gunn and Paly said last week's Caltrain death had an impact on both campuses.
Gunn representative Steve Zhou said there is talk of having "suicide survivors" and students with depression come together to form support groups with one another.
Zhou modeled his T-shirt, made and sold in large quantities by two Gunn seniors, that says "Talk to me," encouraging more open communication among students.
"Obviously we're in a tough place right now, and we're going to continue to work on these issues going forward," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.