The Right Grades for High School Students

As a recent immigrant from Mexico, Antonio perceived school success as an opportunity to increase his quality of life. A native Spanish speaker, Antonio stayed up late into the night during middle school to complete his assignments, translating his school work from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish. Beginning his high school career, he was identified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and placed in sheltered English classes.

Though he finished the 10th grade with straight A’s and a 4.0-grade point average (GPA), he was not heading towards the path that would make him competitively eligible to enter many of California’s public universities upon graduation. While Antonio’s grades were impressive, they would not be sufficient.

Lisa struggled academically throughout her high school experience. While her low GPA (1.69 after the 10th grade) was not reflective of her academic ability, it did reveal the continuous family and personal problems she encountered as a high school student. As a member of a college access program, Lisa was a struggling student but maintained hope of attending a four-year university.

During the end of her junior year, Lisa began improving her grades. Her life stabilized and she participated in the 2000 IDEA/LABI UCLA Summer Research Seminar at the Democratic National Convention. With a grounded personal life and a new perspective on attending college, Lisa applied for college. Antonio and Lisa, with disparate GPAs, would both need to work hard to ensure college admittance. This article, the third in this series, discusses the detailed issue of achieving the “right grades,” and shares the experiences of these two individuals as they make their way to college and come to recognize the complexities surrounding the issue of grades.

Admitted freshmen for Fall, 2002 at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles achieved an average grade point average (GPA) of 4.23. At UC, San Diego admitted freshmen had an average GPA of 4.03. Likewise, 87% of incoming freshman at California State University (CSU) campuses had at least a 3.0 GPA. These figures emphasize the irrefutable: the achievement of good grades is essential as a means of accessing college. However, as the stories of Antonio and Lisa illuminate, the issue of achieving the “right grades” is more complex than it appears at first glance.

Grading policies are not uniform; they are established by local district governing boards and vary throughout the state. In some districts, school board grading policies are highly prescriptive. In other districts, specific classroom guidelines are left to the individual school and/or classroom teacher. As most students have experienced, classroom grades on assignments and report cards generally are a consideration of other factors besides pure academic achievement (e,g., timeliness of assignment, neatness, effort, creativity, attendance, etc.). Hence, achieving the “right grades”—a grade of C- or better to be minimally eligible for college—requires a clear understanding of the grading policies defined by the teacher, school and/or district.

The complexities surrounding grades is further complicated if we examine how grades are distributed among students. A comparison of grade distributions between two high schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrates that students attending some schools are at a higher risk of earning grades that will not assist in college attainment. For example, 66% of the students attending Garfield High School earned either a D or F grade in Mathematics compared to 46% of students attending Granada Hills Senior High (2001-2002 school year).

The same trend is evident for grades earned in English classes. At Granada Hills High School, 29% of students earned a D or F grade in English, compared to 42% at Garfield. Clearly, these differences in grade distribution and attainment require further attention and comprehension. In particular, how can colleges and universities adequately respond to the difficulties and challenges presented to students attending high schools such as Garfield Senior High? UCs current admission policies attempt to take these challenges into consideration by guaranteeing admission to students ranking in the top 4% of their high school class even if they fall outside the top 12.5% of students statewide (students ranking in the top 12.5% statewide are guaranteed admission).

Finally, the determination of an overall high school GPA is not a straightforward matter. High school GPAs are based on a letter grading system. Colleges compute mean GPAs based on a 4.0 scale with points assigned to grades as follows:

A = 4 points
B = 3 points
C = 2 points
D = 1 points
F = 0 points

UCs and CSUs calculate GPA based on the grades earned in college preparatory courses (“a-g” subjects) in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. (Courses taken in the 9th grade can be used to meet the “a-g” requirements if a grade of C or better was earned.) Grades earned in 9th grade, and classes such as PE and ROTC are not used to calculate GPA. While not included in the calculated high school GPA, grades earned in the 9th grade and grades earned in these other courses remain part of a high school transcript reviewed by colleges and universities.

For example, Ds and Fs earned in courses show up on a high school transcript, and if these courses are retaken (a good strategy), the new grade is recorded on your transcript. However, the old grade also remains on your record and both grades are computed in your GPA. Lisa used this strategy to improve her GPA. Lisa repeated two courses and was able to increase her GPA to 2.13 by the end of her senior year.

A review of the overall transcript also provides a context for the GPA earned: a strong GPA accomplished through a weak program is not as meaningful as a strong GPA accomplished through a rigorous program. As a means of providing “compensation” for students enrolled in a rigorous program, most colleges calculate two GPAs: “weighted” and “unweighted.” Colleges “weight” advanced courses, honors courses and AP courses with an extra point.

In other words, a B (3.0) earned in an AP Math course would be weighted as an A (4.0). Likewise, an A earned in an advanced course would be weighted as a 5.0. A grade of D or F in an advanced placement or honors course does not earn extra points. Antonio, gained an understanding of the importance of a rigorous program, and enrolled and succeeded in AP and Honors level courses throughout his junior and senior year making him competitively eligible for many of California’s public universities.

Antonio’s pathway illustrates how taking A-G courses, Honors, and Advanced Placement courses influence your high school grade point average and your transcript. Not all courses included in your high school GPA count towards the GPA the university may calculate for you. While Antonio earned a high GPA in 9th and 10th grade, he was not on schedule to attend a four-year university because he was not enrolled in the correct courses.

When he did begin taking college preparatory classes, his (“unweighted”) GPA dropped from a 4.0 to a 3.57 in 11th grade and a 3.5 in 12th grade respectively after enrolling in honors classes. However, because he was enrolled in honors classes, his “weighted” GPA remained a 4.0.

 a 4.0.

9th Grade 10th Grade 11th Grade 12th Grade 10th-12th
3.92 4.00 3.57 3.50 3.69

Antonio was fortunate. Through his involvement in a college access program, he learned that he had to earn the “right grades,” in the “right courses.”

“Students who are not very proficient in English are automatically placed in lower tracks. Teachers or counselors immediately assume that because a student does not speak or understand English well, he is not capable of succeeding in advanced courses…When I entered high school, I had no idea what was next… I thought that working hard and having a high GPA would give me the opportunity to go to college. However, I learned that working hard was not going to be enough. I did not know that if I took AP courses I would have an extra point in my GPA. I learned that I lacked a lot of essential information that I needed to know in order to gain college access.”

Antonio applied and was accepted to a number of universities in the state (due to his immigrant status, and qualifications for financial assistance his choices were few). Although his “unweighted” GPA dropped in the 11th and 12th grade, his transcript demonstrated his willingness to work hard and challenge himself.

Universities also review the transcript to identify any trends in terms of grades achieved. For example, showing a consistent rise in GPA (especially if the courses are getting more difficult) demonstrates effort and hard work. This trend is demonstrated in the case of Lisa’s grade improvements.

9th Grade 10th Grade 11th Grade 12th Grade 10th-12th
1.80 1.69 1.71 2.13 1.86

As the upward trend in Lisa’s grades show, she began to get back on track. Unfortunately, her high school counselor determined by a mere glance at her GPA that a community college was her only option after high school. Lisa, in contrast, was not prepared to give up hope on a four-year college and sought out universities that were willing to take a chance on her. Although Lisa did not graduate with an impressive GPA, her transcript demonstrated improvement, enrollment in college preparatory courses, and her college application explained the circumstances leading to her overall GPA. Lisa documented her senior year experience:

“Close to the end of the first semester, all students go to their counselors and schedule classes for the spring semester. On the morning of my appointment, I walked into the counselor’s office excited that I was going to schedule classes for my last semester in high school. As I walked into his office all he said was to sit down, he turned on his computer, quickly clicked to my files and said, ‘Ah, what classes do you want to take? I mean you can choose not to take many academic classes because you are going to [the local junior college] anyway, right?”

Her experience dealing with a high school counselor during her senior year illustrates the power of how grade point averages determine perceptions of students’ abilities and future pathways. It also alludes to the need for a system that acknowledges student improvement and potential. Lisa and Antonio, have recently completed their second year at a four-year college. Both students are maintaining high GPAs.