Three Common Myths & Facts About Sophomore Year to Read Before Fall

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

In 2020, the To&Through Project and UChicago Consortium on School Research released a report that, for the first time, looked at indicators and outcomes of sophomore year success for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. The report revealed that sophomore year is a time of both significant opportunity and risk for students:

  • students who got back on track as sophomores graduated from high school at a rate of 73%,
  • whereas students remained off-track as sophomores graduated at a rate of 21%.
  • students who remained on-track sophomore year graduated from high school at a rate of 93%,
  • whereas students who fell off track sophomore year graduated at a rate of 43%.

These findings reinforce the urgent importance of supporting CPS’ incoming sophomores, whose transition to high school was fraught with adversity unlike ever before in their educational careers. A preliminary analysis from WBEZ also reveals that this adversity was compounded by preexisting disadvantage, rendering freshmen who attended schools that largely serve low-income students less likely to finish freshman year on-track.

Finally, the findings from the report also suggest that some long-held beliefs about the sophomore year may be incorrect. Below are three common misconceptions about what predicts sophomore success and the supports sophomores need.

1. MYTH: The vast majority of off-track sophomores had been off-track as freshmen.

FACT: Being on-track as a freshman is highly predictive of being on-track as a sophomore, but it does not guarantee it. Many students fall off-track for the first time during sophomore year: nearly half of all off-track sophomores in the 2013–2014 CPS freshman cohort were on-track as freshmen.

Rates of course failure increase in every subject from freshman to sophomore year, and, on average, students’ grades decline slightly and their attendance declines significantly. This suggests that many students begin to struggle during sophomore year, and may require a continuation of some of the supports that helped them to be successful as freshmen.

2. MYTH: Students need less support their sophomore year than they do their freshman year.

FACT: Freshman and sophomore success both matter for high school graduation. Fewer than one-half of students who finished freshman year on-track but fell off-track sophomore year graduated from high school within four years.

Since rates of course failure, on average, increase between freshman and sophomore year, the Sophomore OnTrack rate is lower than the Freshman OnTrack rate. This suggests a need to still support and monitor sophomore students.

Fortunately, the supports that incoming sophomores will need to get back on track this fall may not look very different from those that have driven the rise in Chicago’s Freshman OnTrack rate over the past decade. Practitioners can apply the learnings from the work they have already done to build strong teams of administrators, counselors, and teachers who regularly use data to monitor, intervene, and care for freshmen entering high school.

  • Support: In particular, educators need to be intentional about giving sophomores more time and space than usual to adjust to high school, making time to facilitate relationship-building, and using mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than punishment. Students will also likely need opportunities in their classes to process the world around them, making sense of the sickness, economic hardship, and racial injustice they are experiencing every day.
  • Monitor: Although sophomore success teams are still less prevalent than freshman success teams in CPS, some schools have expanded freshman success strategies to sophomore year, extending student supports and adopting similar meeting structures to monitor sophomore data.

3. MYTH: Sophomore students’ attendance and GPA are not very predictive of their likelihood of four-year college access and enrollment.

FACT: Off-track status, course failures, and attendance are three powerful warning indicators for high school graduation, but GPA is the most powerful indicator of college access and enrollment.

By using a system that combines all of these key predictive indicators — a GPA threshold of 3.0, in addition to the three warning indicators for high school graduation — educators could further differentiate among their students to better identify potential challenges, and more effectively target supports. To learn more about how the UChicago Consortium and To&Through Project group students into four success statuses based on these key predictive indicators, click here.

Visit the study’s webpage to read the report The Forgotten Year: Applying Lessons from Freshman Success to Sophomore Year or explore accompanying resources like a booklet of visualizations that summarize key findings from the report or a guide for practitioners seeking to apply the research.

Source: Seeskin, A., Mahaffie, S., & Usher, A. (2020). The forgotten year: Applying lessons from freshman success to sophomore year. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.