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My Bright 11th-Grader Got a D in Calculus

By Eva Ostrum, Consulting Educator


My son is a junior in high school and he has always wanted to be a mechanical engineer. He designed and built a guitar and is restoring an old 70s Nova. He has been in gifted programs, honors and now AP classes since fourth grade and has done well up to now. He had no more math to take as a junior but AP calculus. He is now barely holding on to a D. This is the wrong time to get such a low grade and I'm trying to figure out if it will kill his chances for admission to the colleges he applies for. What does he do now? His GPA was 3.5 before calculus.


Your son's hobbies and interests suggest that he does well in math and enjoys mathematical and mechanical challenges. I understand your concern about his grades during his junior year, but I suggest focusing on the real issue here: Why is your son suddenly floundering in the very area that he has always loved? I would like to know your son's perspective on his math grade. How does he describe what is going on here? What he has to say matters, as only he can clear up this mystery.

Talk to him, not about the grades, but about what is happening in his head and in his heart. Is he happy? Does he still enjoy school the way he used to? Is he having a problem with his teacher? Have his interests changed? Put the grades aside until you genuinely understand the root causes. Having figured those out, you will find yourself much better able to address the situation.

As for his GPA, if he cannot bring it up during the academic year, consider having him take a similar course during the summer to demonstrate that he can handle the material but that other things got in the way during the school year (which is what I suspect is happening).

Eva Ostrum award-winning educator and author, counsels parents and students on the college admissions process and on improving student academic performance.


Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"He should get help whenever he doesn't get the material. When i didn't get my math i went to my teacher during lunch and got help. if he really wants to pass calculas he should go and get help from a teacher or have a tutor or come home after school and study his notes."
"My straight-A student daughter, who loved Latin, started to 'tank' on her Latin, AP Psych and Trig/Functions during second semester of junior year. She had made different (but nice) friends, gained hobbies...and found a boyfriend. She basically didn't study for several months and nothing I did would help - including being very nice and lending a listening ear. Finally, with the school psychologist, I decided high school is a good place for such a mistake (rather than 1,000 miles away in college) and you know what? With one month left to school, she woke up. She ended up with a B+ in AP Psych (but got a 5 on the AP exam), a C in Trig/Functions (never wanted her in that honors class to begin with) and extended Latin for a month -- it was online -- so that she could get a B+ in that, too. Gifted kids sometimes hit a point where classes are not just 'breeze through' for them, and they need to learn to motivate themselves. My daughter is prepared to explain her lower GPA (it's no! w a 3.75 instead of a 4.0) to colleges and talk about the lessons learned about life balance. "
"As an engineer I can tell you that calculus is a different kind of math that takes some getting used to and a very good teacher. Few high school teachers have a true understanding of calculus as they are educators and not engineers. High school teachers in the USA are not required to know their subject matter so much as teaching techniques. They only have to stay a little ahead of the kids and be able to manage a class. Managing a class (or several of them) is not an easy thing, but poor subject knowledge is in the areas of math and science are our biggest challenge here because of the way our teacher training is set up."
"Let alone how to teach math, do many teachers know what it is about? Do they know how to get, manage, and put ideas to construct solutions to problems? In other words, do they know how to run math? Not only students poor in math get hurt. But too many good students get badly hurt and lost. By the way, diamond can be cut with diamond only. Besides, diamond is fragile, and is very much so."
"Many, many, many teachers CAN NOT teach math and barely have a grasp on it themselves. I have found this to be the problem many times with my 3 son's. Sadly, because there are many poor math teachers, a person must be able to read and understand directions/instructions from the book. This is the best skill they can acquire as they may also be stuck with a poor professor in college (though not as likely as in high school). "
"I'm the one that wrote to you about my son heading for the D in Calculus. (When I wrote to you, he had not received the grade yet). I'll now provide some insight and the ending. I felt the teacher was at fault and my son's counselor agreed with me, (teacher did not let kids take home their graded tests for review)...teacher's hard to get along with, etc)., However, after almost making a date to visit with this teacher, I asked my son again what caused the slip. His answer, 'me'. Apparently he felt it was easy to begin with and he allowed himself to daydream to the point of losing pace with the class. Long story short, he asked for a tutor who quickly got him back on track and he earned a 'C' in the class but also passed the AP exam. Moral of this story, don't be quick to judge the teacher, recognize that son has done well without your help for some time and that he will find his way out of the problem just fine. "
"very interesting article and wonderful answer Thank you this will help me and my son a lot"