From high school A’s to college F’s

Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student at an inner-city Los Angeles high school, went to Berkeley with a great attitude, a great work ethic, lots of “grit” — and weak reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother who works as a security guard, Campbell grew up with little exposure to the world outside his neighborhood other than watching Jeopardy. Although Berkeley felt like a “different world,” he embraced it enthusiastically.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

But he was shocked by the academic expectations.

At Jefferson, a long essay took a page and perfect grades came after an hour of study a night.

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Campbell chose to live with other black first-year students in the African-American Theme Program, two floors in a dorm. He became close friends with roommate Spencer Simpson, who was earning A’s in challenging classes at Berkeley.

Like Campbell, Simpson had been raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood and earned straight A’s at low-performing schools. Both were nerds who “didn’t try to act tough” and were “shy around girls.” But there were differences.

Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

Campbell coped with depression, kept working, joined study groups and — with an A in African American Studies — raised his GPA above 2.0. But he got an incomplete in the writing class on his second try. He’ll be back for a second year.

About Joanne


  1. How does any college, much less Berkeley, admit a student who can’t do the most basic work?

    How does any college, much less Berkeley, allow a student who can’t pass freshman writing to return for a second year? Do they believe he will have no further wiring assignments in any of his classes?

    • He has qualities important to the school.

      There’s the color of his skin which makes him worthwhile in UC Berkeley’s ongoing effort to display their support of “diversity”. Then there’s all the student loan cash he can hand over to the school.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “How does any college, much less Berkeley, admit a student who can’t do the most basic work?”


      By sending out an acceptance letter … This sort of thing is not new …


      “[Karina] De La Cruz faces fairy tale odds. She’s an illegal immigrant, so she isn’t eligible for most forms of state and federal financial aid. The University of California system, by policy, does not require applicants to disclose their citizenship status: Officials say their goal is to find the best students, not to enforce immigration law.”


      “The average UCLA freshman boasted a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades, according to the most recent data posted by the school, and De La Cruz had a 3.365 at San Pedro High when she applied. She got a 21 out of a possible 36 on the ACT college admissions exam, ranking her in the 48th percentile in California. She scored 380 out of a possible 800 on an SAT subject test, putting her in the third percentile nationwide.

      But on March 8, De La Cruz opened an e-mail from UCLA, and a congratulatory banner popped up. She screamed and asked a friend to look.”



      Note that 21 on the ACT for UCLA would put her in the bottom quartile of her class. Probably in the bottom 10%.


      In spite of the claim of the UC official that “goal is to find the best students,” it clearly is not. UCLA could have selected from lots of folks with higher ACT scores than Ms. De La Cruz. Same thing applies here to Mr. Campbell.


      I wish Kashawn Campbell well. He probably doesn’t belong at Cal, but since he *IS* there, I’d prefer to see him struggle through and get both an education and a diploma. But he’s got a very steep hill to climb.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        The schools are perpetrating a profound injustice on these kids. They’re using them in a disgusting manner. Bright kids with poor skills don’t belong in an Ivy school. My guess is most of them aren’t going to make it to graduation.

  2. This issue shows that grades appear to be completely
    inflated at the high school level, but if this kid’s longest essay
    was only a page at the high school level, I can see how
    the problem just got compounded.

    My book reports in high school for most science classes
    and in literature were usually at least five pages, double
    spaced, and most science projects (semester type) were
    closer to 10 to 20 pages.

    I suspect unless he really gets some more academic help,
    he probably won’t make it past his 2nd year (and not knowing what his major is, which I suspect isn’t a STEM
    major, he will probably wind up getting more depressed).

    If he thinks he has problems now, just wait until his student
    loans come due, then he’ll really get depressed.


  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    As counterpoint, let me offer the following:

    Someone has to be at the bottom of the class, and getting there isn’t always a painless process.

  4. This kid, however hard-working, is seriously unprepared for Berkeley. He’s a set-up to be at the bottom of the class and/or a transfer to a really soft major (XYZ studies for ex), because the same pressure to admit him applies to not flunking him out. Since his SAT and AP scores weren’t mentioned, I’m betting that they show the same weakness as his very-inflated GPA and coursework do. Sander’s book, Mismatch, discusses the issue both at the undergrad and grad levels.

    Almost 20 years ago, I remember reading an article by a black man whose eldest was beginning her college search. He said that he would not allow her to consider any college where her grades, coursework and SATs would not put her within the mean of the freshman class. He specifically stated the reason was that AA (aka “diversity”, “holistic admissions” etc) could easily put her in a situation where she was not academically competitive with her classmates and he wouldn’t allow that. He wanted her to be challenged, but not overwhelmed, so he wanted her at a school where her academic background was the right fit.

    • A decent guidance counselor/teacher should have tried to steer him to a better match. Or was the whole school too busy patting themselves on the back over his acceptance? Also, why did none of his teachers actually teach him basic composition and stress the importance of background knowledge – lit, history, culture – like his roommate’s mom did?

      It’s the exact same issue as the 93 grad of a really weak DC school encountered – the book is called A Hope in the Unseen. In the past 20 years, willing and hard-working kids are still not being really educated (as defined by competitive colleges). It’s long past time to separate them from the blob of disinterested peers.

  5. In high schools, I’ve encountered lots of pressure to grade high–almost no discussion about how to teach kids to read and write well.

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    This is where a year-long post high school college prep boot camp program would really be a good idea. Kashawn presumably isn’t a dumb guy but he is clearly unprepared for a 4 year university.

    • I taught classes for a similar program. It was affiliated with a university, and designed for entering students who showed promise but had sufficiently low ACT/SAT scores due to life circumstances that they were unprepared for regular courses. They took small-group developmental courses in key academic areas. After a year, they transitioned to regular courses. The success rate was pretty decent. I have no idea why Berkeley doesn’t do this as they certainly have more money than we did, and it would be the ideal placement for someone like Kashawn.

    • The various service academies (West Point, Naval Academy etc) have prep schools and have had for years.

  7. Ted Craig says:

    He’ll be back for a second year.

    Why? There are so many other schools he could attend in the UC system, not only for his own benefit, but to open a space for another Spencer Simpson.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose the question is how the kid came to be like that.
    A planted axiom is that the HS didn’t bother to teach him. Another reason might be that he went to a school which had so many problems with the rest of the student body that this was the best they could do with the time and effort they had left over after managing the other issues.

  9. I’m a college prof in the STEM field. This is a common, common issue. Not just for inner-city kids – for rural kids, for suburban kids. They earn As in high school doing nearly nothing, and when we expect them to do college-level work, they’re blown away and frequently angry at the “mean” professors for making things so “hard.”

    I don’t know how many of my students that I’ve had to explain to about “an hour of studying the night before an exam isn’t enough for anyone.”

    • Ricki- It’s enough if you attended class, kept up with the work, and made sure you understood everything all along—especially for science and math, since they build on themselves.

      The problem is that a lot of kids see math, for instance, as a series of discrete facts to be learned, not as a system. And they have the same problem with science, and with history…. they don’t seem to understand that they’re supposed to plug what they’ve learned into a unified whole.

      This is a big problem with how we teach k-12, I think. Information gets taught, tested, and then disappears forever. So learning looks like “jumping over hurdles” instead of accumulating a cohesive body of knowledge.

      As a student, I seldom studied the night before exams, other than working a few problems and rereading the chapter headings to make sure I remembered everything. BUT….the whole term was preparation for the exam. This is probably something you need to explain to your students on the first day of class. Many of them just don’t get it…..

      • I think kids lack study skills; how to take class notes, how to highlight/take notes on readings, how to anticipate likely test questions, how to summarize, how to outline etc. They also lack reading ability for academic materials because k-12 readings have been so dumbed down and the quantity decreased. A retired HS teacher relative recently discovered that his replacement went over the whole test, question by question, the day before it was given – and there were rarely any short answer or essay questions. Kids could do nothing at all except listen well on that one day and get a high grade on the test. He was appalled.

      • Yup. I refer to it as “Compartmentalization of Knowledge” – as in, “I learned about DNA replication, now I can put it in a box on a dusty shelf and never think about it again.”

    • As a high school math teacher, I was shocked when my students complained that the 2nd exam had material from the first exam on it. I noted that the syllabus DID say cumulative on it. I once taught in a district where each semester carried credit and was informed that I couldn’t test knowledge taught in the first sememster – even though 95% of my students had carried over from one term to the next.

      Remember, we’re living in times where major school districts are publishing homework guidelines that say no more than 10 hours per WEEK for all subjects combined. This policy applies to kids taking multiple AP’s. Not surprising the disconnect being seen in college.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “As a high school math teacher, I was shocked when my students complained that the 2nd exam had material from the first exam on it”

        Your students are good, if unconscious, scientists. They have detected a pattern: a test only tests the unit they just went over. That has led them to the strategy: memorize what they did this unit. When you break that pattern and mess up their strategy (while requiring more work and more thinking!), they are understandably angry.

        Teachers also notice patterns. Students do better on end of unit tests if they are told at the beginning of the unit exactly what the teacher expects the student to be able to demonstrate at the end. Students do better if the teacher reviews before the exam. Students do even better if the teacher reviews knowing what will be on the exam and emphasizing what will be on the exam. Since teachers are generally nice people and want students to do well, they are constantly tempted to do these things.

        Review can be a good thing. It can tie together what was done in the unit and show how it fits with the rest of the course. At its best, this helps the student move from Deirdre Mundy’s “series of discrete facts” to her “unified whole.”

        At it’s worst, it devolves into momof4’s teacher who “went over the whole test, question by question, the day before it was given – and there were rarely any short answer or essay questions.”

        It is extremely difficult to come up with tests that assess cumulative understanding rather than the discrete facts of a particular unit. In my experience as a high school teacher, students also find them very unpleasant. There is constant pressure from them, “Tell us what you want us to tell you. Don’t give us this fuzzy, ‘I want you to understand.'”

        • I think part of the problem is that high school students tend to be credentialists. They don’t care about ‘learning to speak and read Spanish.’ They care about ‘passing this quiz’ or ‘making it through this assignment.’

          Classes are hoops to jump through on the way to a diploma, not pieces of a puzzle.

          I wonder if part of the problem is how our curriculum is designed. We have all these discrete courses: English Lit. American Lit. American History. European History. Chemistry. Physics. Schools seem to arrange them in a random order. There’s no concept that all these disciplines fit together into one education.

          I think a unified K-12 curriculum, where each teacher built on the preceding one, would help kids see the big picture. Instead, each year (or semester, or class period) is its own self-contained world.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I think one reason “We have all these discrete courses” is that they are the courses the teachers took in college, suitably abridged for high school. That makes it easy to get high school teachers who can teach those courses. Everyone in the business is familiar with, and most are satisfied with, structuring school that way.

            I’m afraid a lot of college students are also credentialists.

        • Review is undoubtedly essential to learning and preparing for the test. However, students (even at the college level, sad to say) interpret “review” to mean “The instructor goes through the material and tells me what’s going to be on the test so I know what I have to know, and what I can blow off.”

          They are invariably disappointed when I tell them that they are responsible for reviewing the material on their own. No review handouts from me – I’ve already been through college once, and I’m not the one who has to take the test.

    • Speaks to the difference between K-12 and higher ed.

      In the K-12 system once you’ve wrung a kid dry you’re done with them. They serve no more purpose other then one day, perhaps, being parents themselves and creating the next generation of fodder for the K-12 system.

      Higher ed’s demands are different. Sure the kids are the source of much of the organization’s income but ultimately they’re also the source of the skilled and intelligent work force that the professors are counting on to do the scut work necessary for the profs to get published.

    • Ricki,

      Having taught information security as an adjunct at the
      local community college, it’s not enough that only reviewing the material for an hour before the test is actually going to work (unless you ACTUALLY know the
      material already).

      Students need to be a LOT more serious about what it
      takes to actually succeed at the college level.

      Of course, a 4.0 GPA today might be actually about 2.00 some 25 to 30 years ago…


      • Are commenters here serious? No amount of attending class, working hard, great high school teaching,college prep can make up for the lack of cognitive ability. The author of the article has described it well in the different experiences of Spencer Simpson and Kashawn Cambpell; it is almost entirely clear that one of them has the cognitive ability.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          vijay. Had his HS grading been honest, he’d have been someplace more appropriate.
          Had his schooling been better, maybe he’d be better off.
          There may be a cognitive difference, but there’s a background difference as well, which may confuse the cognitive issue.
          WRT writing coaches: Clearly he DOES NOT KNOW BETTER. Which is to say either nobody told him or somebody told him and it didn’t take. Only one of those has to do with cognition.

          • Do we honestly believe that Cal does not know the difference in HS grades between say, Whitney in Cerritos and Jefferson High? They do; they can tell by the GPA and SAT correlations. In this case, Kashawn Campbell is a sacrifice by Cl in the altar of affirmative action. all the help in the Cal cannot overcome. The lack of cognitive ability should lead CAl to counsel him to transfer to a community college. NO ONE WILL DO THIS.