A perfect grade-point average in high school is a coup, no doubt about it. It tells students they're at the top of the heap — at their respective schools.
But a straight-A transcript does not guarantee a student is ready for college-level work. About 20 percent of the freshmen who enter Cal State East Bay with a 4.0 GPA need at least some remediation in math, English or both, according to Greg Smith, associate vice president of enrollment for the university.
The rate is about 60 percent when you include all first-time freshmen in the California State University system. Most of the 25,000 Cal State students placed in remedial classes each year held at least a B average in high school and completed a long list of university-approved college preparatory courses, as the admissions system requires.
Mike Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, says that statistic is evidence that grades, course titles and even "honors" labels are suspect. It's what's taught in the courses that counts, he said — and too often, that content is weak.
"In America, high school course content and homework demands and pacing is detached from college," Kirst said. "If you're not in AP (advanced placement) classes, it's really quite dangerous."
"It's not just Oakland at all," he added about college preparation in high school. "It's more common than uncommon."
Frank Worrell, an educational psychology professor at UC Berkeley, said students with strong grades are more likely to succeed in college — but that a 4.0 GPA is by no means an absolute measure.
"If you are in a school where the standards are lower, an A doesn't mean the same as it does in a school that's more rigorous," he said. "I think this is a problem that faces public schools, particularly schools in low-income areas."
That may seem to be common sense, but high school students don't always have a broader perspective.
Worrell has spent years working with low-income, minority students and studying the psychology behind their college experiences. He said they often arrive on campus and discover they have a year or two of remedial course work ahead of them. It's common for them to feel they don't belong, he said, and to drop out.
He said he tells them, "It doesn't mean you cannot be successful. You just need to understand that you'll need to work harder."
Worrell said high school students benefit from summer outreach programs at universities, including UC Berkeley. Not only do they get a sense of what will be expected of them in college, he said, but they work closely with motivated students from other schools.
"They get a sense of calibration," he said.