Why Sophomore Year Matters More Than Ever

The To&Through Project
4 min readAug 19, 2020

Alex Seeskin, Director, The To&Through Project
Shelby Maffie, Research Analyst II, UChicago Consortium on School Research
Alexandra Usher, Associate Director for Data Research, The To&Through Project; Senior Research Analyst, UChicago Consortium on School Research

In Chicago and many districts around the country, sophomore year is a forgotten year, a time sandwiched in between high school’s more momentous milestones: freshman year is focused on ensuring a smooth transition to high school; junior year on preparing for post-secondary entrance exams; and senior year on applying to college. Amidst turbulence from a global health crisis and increased economic insecurity and health challenges, protests over racial injustice, and virtual learning, sophomores are both more vulnerable than ever and even more likely to be forgotten.

Today we are releasing The Forgotten Year: Applying Lessons from Freshman Success to Sophomore Year, a report from the UChicago Consortium on School Research and the To&Through Project that for the first time looks at indicators and outcomes of sophomore year success for Chicago Public School students. Sophomore year presents students with both opportunities and challenges, and our findings suggest that ensuring a successful sophomore year is critical for students’ success later in high school.

CPS students who finished freshman year off-track for high school graduation (typically failing at least two core classes) but got back on-track as sophomores graduated at a rate of 73% whereas students who remained off-track graduated at a rate of only 21%. However, for students who were on-track for graduation at the end of freshman year, sophomore year was a time of significant risk: many students who were on-track at the end of freshman year fell off-track during sophomore year, and only 43% of these students went on to graduate.

While passing courses during sophomore year was critical to graduation, it wasn’t always enough. Our findings show that attendance was also a critical indicator of graduation, even for students who were passing all of their classes, and that there was a significant decrease in attendance between freshman and sophomore year. In the report, we lay out an indicator system to help practitioners identify students who need extra support.

And although the data in our report is drawn from school-years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the findings have important implications for the upcoming school-year since this year’s sophomores may face even more challenges than usual. As freshmen, these students missed three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic (and in Chicago, an additional two weeks during the fall teachers’ strike), and at a time when they should be establishing their own identity within the bounds of school and beginning to imagine their future selves, many may still be adjusting to high school. At a fragile period of adolescent development, sophomores will have to adjust to the expectations of seven or eight new teachers and navigate a slew of new online platforms, routines, and norms.

Fortunately, many schools don’t have to reinvent the wheel; they can apply the learnings from the work they have already done, building strong teams of administrators, counselors, and teachers who regularly use data to monitor, intervene, and care for freshmen entering high school. 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.

Finally, with sophomores learning remotely, there will be an even greater need to closely track how students and their families are experiencing school and the pandemic etc. Teams will have to continue monitoring GPA and virtual attendance/engagement, while finding new ways to engage students and to identify the students most in need of additional support (even when students are passing their classes). They also need to begin looking to collect other forms of data through student and parent surveys, focus groups, or empathy interviews. Indeed, with students learning across a virtual divide, gathering qualitative data about their experiences, interests, and identities will be critical to fostering virtual classrooms where students are equal partners in their learning.

The lack of definition around sophomore year is neither predetermined nor purposeful, and though the work with sophomores takes on added importance this year, it will remain critical long after this period. Let’s use this moment as an opportunity to redefine sophomore year as a time of intentional support and development where students can begin to imagine a future of post-secondary possibility and adulthood.

This piece uses language from The Forgotten Year: Applying Lessons from Freshman Success to Sophomore Year



The To&Through Project

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