Worried about High School Grades & Test Scores

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Hard-working son disappointed with test scores

May 2013

Our son is just completing his junior year at a local private high school. He has worked very, very hard this year, putting out consistently high effort from day one. He is an active participant in his classes, turns all of his homework in on time, and goes into his exams with a high-A average. Then the mid-terms and finals come, and despite his studying very hard, he gets low marks (averaging 75-80% typically). His grades are pulled down and his overall GPA suffers as a result. This pattern has been in place for some time; he is aware of it but for some curious reason he stubbornly does not agree that test-testing is the issue. I've spoken to each of his very accommodating teachers, who all think the world of him and know how hard he's working, and everyone agrees there's a problem; some have tried to help him build up his skills in this area.

He has always wanted to go one of the more well-known (aka elite) universities on the East Coast (like most of the members of my immediate family) and he is deeply confused and worried about his prospects. His one best friend at school just got a remarkable 2360 on the SAT, and when my son took the SAT in early May, after working with a tutor and taking umteen practice tests, he came away saying he had ''failed'' (which of course, no one does).

Here are the issues: How to help my son stay motivated in the face of repeated academic disappoinment? How do we navigate the very complex college search process based on his less-than super-competitive GPA and average SAT scores? How do we choose the schools that will be the right fit, not over- or under-reaching (when it's not shaping up the way we expected all along)? How do we get to the bottom of what is really going on with this test-taking issue? Is it too late in the game now that he's almost a senior? What am I missing/overlooking? He doesn't have any sort of obvious learning disability whatsoever so we have never gone down that path. It's so disheartening to have this great kid worry about not reap! ing the rewards of his hard work. I tell him that his work will pay off in so many ways, and I'm so proud of his efforts, but he's understandably disappointed and increasingly skeptical about the future. I'd like to say and do the right things and need advice as to what that might be. Lots of life lessons getting learned here

As a college student (at an ''elite'' East coast university): Getting into a top school for his undergraduate degree may not happen for him. BUT more importantly, I am a college student who is also working two jobs, and I can't emphasise enough how much more employers, especially looking for their entry-level positions and interns, care about work ethic and recommendations than they do grades.

Unless he has his heart set on being something extremely specific like a physician or engineer, test-taking is not going to be a long-term priority for employers. A high school senior like the one you have described - loved by his teachers, turning in his homework on time, actively participating - is more responsible and mature, and a better worker, than *a lot* of juniors and seniors in college with me. If one of my bosses needed an intern, there's no question which would be more useful.

You might also share this idea with him, that I read once: some people are useful because they have ''track and field'' brains, and they do well on tests - but when they are faced with a challenge, they tend to crash and burn. Some people have ''pit-bull brains'' (or ''cross country'' or marathon brains) - once they get something in their teeth, they stay with it until they can tear it apart and put it back together again. If he goes to college with the ability to keep going in the face of disappointment, or when he feels like he isn't making progress, he will already have conquered a *major* battle for most college freshmen, and that is a skill that will be valuable in of itself for school and for his career for the rest of his life. Josh

The college search process is indeed very complex and you are getting a late start. It is too late to fret about the grades he has. If he has taken the SAT and lots of practice SATs, he knows where he stands on that score. He needs to understand that huge numbers of students with great grades and SATs will be rejected by ''elite'' schools and that his time would be better spent focusing on schools where he has a realistic chance of success. You are his mom and thus, maybe not the best person to deliver this message. Please hire a college counselor who can give him a reality-check...and will spend some time getting to know him, his strengths, his interests, his expectations, his preferences, etc, etc. The counselor can then produce a list of recommendations for him to research further. We had an outstanding experience with Carola Ingram, 510-547-1191. Our son is attending a school she recommended --one that we would never have thought about on our own. Two years in, we can verify that it was an inspired choice. Carola charges by the hour so you can have as much or as little assistance as you want. She is kind, mild-mannered, positive, but also realistic. She can help you get this process on track and keep you there. But I wouldn't wait too long to get started. Your son might be much less worried and confused if he had some professional help to get him through this difficult phase. He'll feel a lot better in the fall if he makes some progress on his college applications over the summer. good luck! Anon

Have him assessed. He may have a processing speed or memory issue or just test taking anxiety. Hardly anyone has an obvious learning disability anyway. Parents are freaked out about a ''label'' but having an issue without a formal label doesn't mean the kid isn't labelled. Your son is labeling himself ''failed''. You would all feel better if you had some answer for what is causing this problem. You can pay for private testing and never disclose it to anyone. Or you Might want to tell appropriate personnel if you find out he has a disability and he could show his actual knowledge on tests I'd he sought accommodation. Anon

College options with low SAT scores/grades?

April 2013

Hoping for advice feedback from other parents who have been through the process. Our daughter is a high school junior and just got her SAT test results back. Since she has always scored poorly on standardized tests, we were not that surprised when she scored 370 on math, 400 on English and 500 on writing. She did take an in-person SAT prep class before taking the SAT. Her GPA is between a 2.9 and 3.0. She really, really struggles with science and math. For the past 2 years I have been her reluctant but supportive math \xc3\xa2\xe2\x82\xac\xc5\x93tutor\xc3\xa2\xe2\x82\xac\xc2\x9d and it has been a LOT of work just to get her to a C- in Algebra 2 and Geometry. While she does all of her homework and assignments, she has does not have good study skills or discipline. She resists utilizing her high school resources for academic help and also our efforts to get her a ''real'' tutor for math and science. She did do much better academically before she got interested in boys (in 7th grade) and does not have ADD or a discernible learning disability. She would really like to go to a 4-year college and we would really like for her to do so and have the full campus experience (including living in dorms) and become more independent. She is interested in psychology and sociology and would likely do better academically if she was taking mainly the social sciences classes she found interesting. She has incredible empathy and interpersonal skills, especially with children and would excel in a field like counseling or one that involved helping the less fortunate.

We are wondering:
- With these scores and grades would she be able to get in to a CSU campus?
- If she did get in would she rise to the challenge or would she struggle too much?
- Are there other options if she does not get in to CSU that would give her a live away from home experience in a dorm type environment? She wants to stay in California, and be in/near a large city (LA, San Diego, San Jose, SF, etc.). We cannot afford private college tuition.
- Would she truly be better off testing the waters in a community college and then transferring to a CSU campus after 2 years? We live in San Francisco, and the future of City College is rather shaky.

Looking at options

I encourage you to check the CSU requirements to see if your daughter's GPA and SAT scores are sufficient for entry. If not, yes, there's community college. And yes, some community colleges offer on-campus housing: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_community_colleges_with_campus_housing.

My husband and I have both done community college and CSU for our bachelor's degrees. I don't think CSUs are all that much more challenging than community college, just bigger. Every teacher/class is different. Community college classes can be very challenging; CSU classes can be mediocre. Depends on the teacher. So I wouldn't worry that a CSU is too challenging, but rather, can she get into one.

Whether your daughter will rise to the challenge of any college education is up to her. My husband barely passed high school, moved out of his dsyfunctional home, and supported himself at low-paid jobs until his mid-20s, when he began his college education at a community college. He then went on to SFSU to finish his BS, then to UC Davis for his PhD. Your daughter might be able to go directly to college and thrive, or she may need to start working instead and decide later if she wants to do college.

Sometimes kids will do better on their own. Grades stop being about the parent-child dynamic and become something they do for themselves. Being able to schedule later classes, not having to be in class all day, etc. might be a better match than the grind of high school. My daughter did much better in college than high school. But you just never know. been there, still doing that

My daughter had very average grades and less than stellar SAT scores. She had a great history of volunteering and had good extra curricular activities. She got into a CSU school and is very happy there. She knows she has a harder time learning than the average student so she goes to all the special sessions, free tutors, TA study sessions etc. She won't ever get all ''a''s but she is enjoying the typical college experience and I am so happy for her. I am a STRONG believer that there is a place for everyone and there is nothing wrong with a C student! proud mom of a wonderful teen who happens to earn average grades

My daughter had a 3.0 and SAT scores similar to those you mentioned, and she applied to & was admitted to 5 CSU campuses. She is probably going to attend S.F.S.U. Anon

Low GPA but two years of college classes in HS

Jan 2010

My teenage son is a senior in high school who went to the local community college (as part of the early college program in the private school he was enrolled in) for 10 and 11 for all subjects but didn't do very well in all subjects. He has a terrible GPA (3) and we had to switch him to the local public school for his final year. The local public school didn't change the grades to reflect college credits. He has good SAT scores (1800), but the low GPA is causing him lots of problems to apply to colleges he wants to (engineering). We are open for private colleges, but not sure if public colleges will even look at his application and see that all the courses he took were college level - he has A's in math and some other but C's and D's in many other. I am not too sure that he can go back to the community college after graduating to retake the courses and improve his GPA as he has already attended the community college classes and may not be motivated. I think a 4-year college would be better for him to be interested. He is a bright, intelligent kid but gets easily distracted with the typical teen online interests (games, youtube, facebook) and procastrination. He has little extra curricular activities or sports to show. He finds the local public school too easy now that he has learned his lessons that he messed up. Do college admission counsellors look at the credits and see that the teen has attempted challenging courses and take that into account? We did apply to a few CSUs but worried as to what to do. anonymous

Since your son has already applied to a few CSU's, you might consider applying to a few others if they are still accepting applications (many have closed their admissions). Unfortunately, engineering is a competitive major and the low grades in community college courses will be a detriment. As a plus, though, since the CSU system weights the grades, his A's will boost the GPA somewhat. If he doesn't get in anywhere, in April have him talk to his guidance counselor, who will be able to put him in touch with an organization that lists the names of private and public colleges that still have openings for their freshman class. So that will give him a chance, and colleges with open slots may be more willing to accept a student with mixed grades. Anonymous

Ah, we just finished our college apps too, with 3 years of all-community college courses, but we did it via home school. Here's what I've learned over the years that may comfort you.

First of all, on the online college app for CSU / UC it allows you to put either the private school grades or the community college grades - we found it easier to put the community college down for the grades. Because he's applying as a freshman, those grades are considered ''college level''. On your private school transcript, you should find he received an extra grade point for his ''college level'' classes. That's the payoff for CL, AP and IB courses - they're considered harder for high school students and the GPA is weighted accordingly.

Secondly, a 3.0 is a pretty good GPA - it is not terrible, especially for someone taking college level courses in high school.

Thirdly, UC/CSU and many private college really like people who take community college courses because they have agreements on course content and transfer credit, so a freshman may actually have completed lower-division work - this is especially great for lab courses.

As to retaking courses, talk to the community college guidance councilor. Usually a college course is an independent student record (not a high school record, although they can accept the course/grade from college) if the student took it via the college, and it's his decision as to retake.

The CSU guidance office also can advise you, as they get lots of students with college credit from high school nowadays - make an appointment with them to talk.

Finally, the student's lack of involvement in activities is more worrisome to admissions. If he is seriously interested in engineering, seeking out an internship via community college, involving himself in FIRST robotics competition, volunteering to help people learn computing or taking additional engineering courses would send a strong signal that your son is serious about his field of study. He needs to show dedication to his life goal - and explain it to an admissions officer.

If he needs more time, seriously consider having him complete community college for transfer. Talk to the college councilors. They are his best resource. Good luck. Lynne

Worried about a D in freshman year of HS

Sept 2009

Through a series of unfortunate events, our daughter was stuck (trapped) last year as a BHS freshman with a geometry teacher whose first language was/is Mandarin. Math is not my daughter's long suite, and it became obvious at the start that this was not a good fit. Unable to change teachers, kid toughed out the year and ended up with D+ in subject (to her total mortification and despite best efforts), which we attribute largely to the language barrier. Question: since we've learned this will remain on her transcript when she applies to college, how significant is the presence of this grade? Our kid is an honors student and we consider this a total, unfortunate aberration; she's about to retake the class and has every intention of improving her grade. Will colleges care about this? Impact on her GPA? She is stellar in the literary arts and headed to some small East Coast liberal arts college. Trying to put this whole thing in perspective and not wanting one bad grade/one incomprehensible teacher to undermine an otherwise great high school career. Looking at big picture

Freshman year is not included in the weighted GPA for colleges. If you are worried about this, you should make an appointment with your school's academic councilor to discuss the matter and develop a plan for her studies. She likely has to retake the course given her grade her sophomore year, but since most high school students take geometry sophomore year anyway, this shouldn't be a big deal. The concern is understanding and rectifying the problem. They may suggest a tutor or additional work so she can do well in the course.

While you may feel that the teacher is at fault, please realize that this issue is water under the bridge. Focus on the needs of the present. Good luck. Lynne

Your daughter's grade will be on her high school transcript, not her college transcript (perhaps that was just an error in your subject line, but I thought I would point it out, nevertheless). Her overall GPA will be the thing that attracts more attention for college applications, but in most cases it is all right to attach a brief note to a transcript or submit a note as part of the application that explains an aberration. In your daughter's case, if the grade does indeed prove to be the only dark spot on an honors-level transcript, I don't think I would bother to write a note, especially if she has ''fixed'' the grade by taking the course again elsewhere and getting a good grade in it. If you do decide to write a note, I would not, however, emphasize that the language difficulty was the primary problem. To my ears it sounds a bit like shifting blame -- in other words, it is a rather weak position. As an admissions officer I might wonder why you didn't hire a tutor, shift classes, etc. In many large institutions the problem of non-native speakers as teachers is a real one, and your daughter may have to cope in that situation again. It would be good to prepare her for that -- what will be her strategy: change sections if she can? Take the course elsewhere? Get a tutor? Complain to the professor? She is very young still, but it would be good to think about that; and I would not worry unduly about this particular grade. professor

My daughter also had a D on her transcript and yet was admitted to several colleges, including UCSD. I, too, was worried about her chances and expected she may have to go to a community college. Other things must have overcome the D, perhaps her essays, experiences, extracurricular activities...she's a great kid and apparently others saw her potential. It's not the end of the world! anon.

How important are grades HS freshman year?

May 2009

I'm hoping that I haven't misled my freshman BHS student concerning the importance of her current grades vis a vis college, and would really appreciate some feedback. Can you please tell me how important grades are in the ninth grade year to college admissions? I've long been under the impression that colleges only look at transcripts for sophomore-senior years, and that ninth grade grades, effectively, are not factored in to the overall GPA equation for college admissions. Is this accurate? If ninth grade grades are included, are they weighted any differently? And here's an underlying question and concern: Is a C in Geometry anything to worry about in an otherwise straight A freshman student's record? She's upset about this grade and I told her not to worry as it didn't matter, but then it occured to me, well, maybe it does. It's been such a long time since I've dealt with these issue and I'd like to give my daughter more current and accurate information. Thanks so much

Grades in the freshman year of high school do not count for the UC and CSU systems when calculating the GPA. But they are part of the overall GPA equation for most other colleges. That said, one ''C'' grade is not going to ruin a student's GPA as long as she continues to get high grades in her other courses. So she shouldn't ''worry about it'' (especially since there's nothing she can do about it), but just continue to strive to get good grades in other classes that she takes. She has learned that she is not perfect, and that may be a useful lesson to learn early. Anonymous

I have been tutoring for many years and recently put two daughters into college. In my experience a single C in math freshman year is not a big deal, especially if she brings her math grade up in subsequent years. Invest in a math tutor and she should be able to get her grade up. You can look on craigslist under LESSONS. I will no longer be tutoring after the end of this school year so I am not being self-serving in making this suggestion. Going to a public school saves you a lot of money (by not paying for private school, ha) so invest a bit of that savings in a good tutor ($25 to 50 an hour). Soph and Jr. grades are weighted more heavily but most top schools don't just ignore frosh performance. Still, she only has one mediocre grades so everything should be fine. sean