Myths and Facts about High School and Postsecondary Success

The path to and through high school and college is riddled with misguided notions and outdated assumptions about what students should know, do, and focus on in order to maximize their chances for success. Fortunately, more than a decade’s worth of research and data from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research — as well as new research produced in partnership with the To&Through Project — has helped solidify the facts and dispel myths about what it takes to make it to and through college.

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Myths about freshman year

MYTH: Students’ freshman year course performance drops because their coursework becomes more difficult.

Existing research suggests the declines in students' grades between 8th and 9th grade cannot be explained by changes in the difficulty of students' coursework. Students' grades decline in part because of developmental and environmental challenges that they face during the transition to high school. Freshmen must adjust to new teachers, peers, environments, and expectations all at once, and they often receive less personal attention and support from teachers and other school staff in ninth grade than they did in elementary school. Challenges like these affect non-cognitive factors like students' academic identity, emotional well-being, and sense of belonging in school, which influence their grades through effects on their attendance and study habits. In 2014, UChicago Consortium researchers concluded that more than 85 percent of the gap in CPS students' Math and English performance between 8th and 9th grade could be explained by changes in their attendance and self-reported study habits, and that almost none of the gap could be attributed to changes in the difficulty of their coursework.

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MYTH: We don’t need to worry about students who enter high school with high eighth grade grades and test scores.

All students are at risk of seeing significant declines in their GPA in core courses (English, Math, Science, and Social Studies) in the transition to high school, even students with strong eighth grade grades and test scores. In fact, fewer than half of students who earned a 3.0 in eighth grade earn a 3.0 in ninth grade. These declines in GPA for high-achieving students mat-ter because high school grades are a critical component of students’ college access and college readiness. Losses during the transition to high school put many students who began high school with a strong record of academic achievement out of range for likely admission to selective or highly selective colleges.

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MYTH: Eighth grade test scores are the best predictors of ninth grade performance.

Eighth grade test scores are strong predictors of high school test scores, but they are not strong predictors of high school course performance. Only a third of students with high test scores in eighth grade go on to earn a B average in high school. Students’ middle school attendance and grades are much stronger predictors of ninth grade GPA than their test scores.

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MYTH: Failing a non-core class like Art or PE in the ninth grade is no big deal — it doesn’t really affect students’ odds of graduating from high school.

A non-core course failure is just as detrimental as a core course failure to students’ likelihood of graduating from high school. For recent cohorts of CPS students, all course failures in ninth grade, regardless of subject area, were associated with large decreases in students' likelihood of graduating from high school. The graduation rate for students with one core course failure and no other failures in ninth grade was 70%; for students with one non-core course failure and no other failures, the graduation rate was very similar, at 68%. Students who passed all of their courses during freshman year of high school, however, had a 90% chance of graduating within four years.

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MYTH: Students always do better academically when they attend a selective enrollment school.

Families put lots of time and resources into determining which high school will be the best fit for their students. There is a popular perception that all students benefit when attending the highest-performing school to which they have access. However, research in Chicago found that while all selective enrollment high school students reported more positive high school experiences (e.g. feelings of personal safety and positive relationships with teachers and peers), selective high school admission had no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood socioeconomic status (SES). In fact, students from low SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 16 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighborhoods who applied to a selective school but were not admitted.

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MYTH: Students’ grades drop more in core courses like English, Math, and Science than non-core courses like Physical Education (PE) and the Arts between the eighth and ninth grades.

Declines in students' academic performance between the eighth and ninth grades are not limited to their grades in the core subject areas. In fact, GPA declines in the two non-core courses common to both the eighth and ninth grades—Arts and PE/Health—greatly exceed average declines in each of the core subject areas. In eighth grade, most students earn As and Bs in Arts and PE/Health but, in ninth grade, their grades in these subject areas fall to below a B average. Students see their grades fall by an average of 0.81 GPA points in PE between the eighth and ninth grades, and by 0.61 points in Arts—and Black and Latino young men see particularly disproportionate average GPA losses in the non-core subject areas. The Arts grades of Black young men fall by more than three-quarters of a point between the eighth and ninth grades, and their PE/Health grades fall a full point.

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MYTH: It's better for students to take a lighter course load in the ninth grade than to take on too much.

While most CPS students enroll in seven courses in their freshman year, those who earn only five credits, regardless of whether or not they’ve failed a course, are unlikely to graduate. Students who earn seven credits during their freshman year of high school are twice as likely as their peers who earn only five credits to graduate from high school within four years.

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MYTH: When freshmen fail classes, they learn important lessons about actions and consequences.

There is no evidence that students who fail classes during freshman year dramatically improve their performance during the rest of high school. When freshmen fail core or non-core classes, their chance of graduating is greatly reduced. With each failed semester course in fresh-man year, a student’s chance of graduating drops by 15 percent. Although students have opportunities to retake classes and make up credits, catching up to peers is diff-icult work and each class failure keeps a student further behind. Failing a class can cause feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment that make it very difficult for students to recover credits at a time when belonging is really important to them developmentally. The most important lessons students can learn during freshman year are the study habits, mindsets, and positive academic identities that will equip them for the rest of high school and college.

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MYTH: Freshman grades don’t matter all that much for college.

Freshman year is not only predictive of high school graduation, but also has a strong correlation with college enrollment and persistence. Moreover, GPA at the end of freshman year is strongly correlated with 11th grade GPA, which is the GPA submitted on college applications. Among students with similar prior achievement who attended the same high school, 70 percent of students with mostly As in ninth grade en-rolled in college, compared to 50 percent of students with mostly Cs in ninth grade.

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MYTH: By the time students reach high school, they should take full responsibility for what they need to do to succeed.

Fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds entering high school are still very much adolescents, and adolescent brains are still developing. Their pre-frontal cortex is still forming, so adolescents struggle with executive functioning, which means that skills like organization, time management, and long-term planning do not come naturally to them. In addition, adolescents are deeply engaged in the process of forming an identity, and their sense of themselves as learners and as people at this stage of development is highly malleable. All of this developmental context means that it is important for teachers to support students in developing the executive functioning skills they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond. This means ensuring students build their academic skills and habits, such as completing homework and participating in class, and receive the message that they are capable of succeeding in school.

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Myths about sophomore year

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

Freshman and sophomore success 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 4 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 better monitor and support sophomore students.

Although sophomore success teams are still less prevalent than freshman success teams, some schools have expanded freshman success strategies to sophomore year, extending student supports and adopting similar meeting structures to monitor sophomore data

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MYTH: Many freshmen go on to improve their GPAs during sophomore and junior years.

Ninth grade is the year when students develop habits and behaviors that persist through the rest of high school, and even through college. Since ninth grade GPA is highly predictive of eleventh grade GPA, a student who is successful in ninth grade is more likely to be successful in later years. Starting strong in high school is crucial for finishing strong at graduation. 

A student who does not do well in the ninth grade can recover, but doing so can be difficult. As coursework becomes more challenging throughout the high school years, rates of course failure increased in every subject between freshman and sophomore year. For the 2016–17 freshman cohort, the course failure rate increased most in math, from 5.0 percent in freshman year to 7.5 percent in sophomore year. To have the best GPA possible upon graduation, it is important to start with a strong GPA freshman year.

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

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.

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Myths about preparing students for postsecondary success

MYTH: As long as a student’s grades are strong enough to graduate from high school, GPAs don’t really matter.

The GPA that gets you into college is not the GPA that gives you the skills to manage the academic demands of college. Strong grades are a sign that students are able to meet challenges and expectations, and are developing the skills they need to handle new academic challenges in the future. 

Students may be admitted to some colleges with a GPA less than 3.0, but only students who enter college with a high school GPA of 3.0 or above have greater than a 50 percent chance of earning a four-year college degree within six years of graduating high school.

Maintaining a 3.0+ GPA freshman and sophomore year is also an important indicator for college enrollment. About two out of three students who finished freshman and sophomore year with a 3.0+ GPA immediately enrolled in a 4-year college. On the other hand,  only about one out of three students who finished freshman year with a 3.0+ GPA but whose GPA fell below 3.0 sophomore year immediately enrolled in a  4-year college.

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MYTH: Not all “As” are created equal.

One of the most pervasive myths in secondary education is the belief that an A at a struggling school is inherently less meaningful than an A at a high-performing school. Often lurking behind this myth is the belief that it takes very little effort to get an A at an underperforming school. In fact, students’ high school grades are similarly predictive of their success in college, regardless of what high school they attended. Much of the difference in college outcomes between similarly-qualified students can be attributed to institutional effects of the colleges students attend.

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MYTH: Standardized test scores are better indicators than grades of how well high schools are preparing students for college.

High school GPAs are often perceived to mean different things or be inconsistent across different high schools, whereas standardized test scores (e.g., ACT or SAT scores) are seen as comparable between different schools. However, students’ high school GPAs are five times stronger than their ACT scores at predicting college graduation, and the predictive power of GPAs is consistent across high schools. In fact, at many high schools there is no connection between students’ ACT scores and eventual college graduation. At other schools, the relationship was found to be negative among students with the highest test scores.

Most states and districts rely heavily on standardized test scores in their accountability systems as indicators of college readiness. Extensive time spent preparing for standardized tests will have much less pay-off for postsecondary success than effort put into coursework, as reflected in students’ grades.

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MYTH: Off-track status, course failures, and attendance are the most powerful indicators of college access and enrollment.

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.

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MYTH: The hardest part of college is getting in — once you're in, you're set.

Even students who are admitted to college and are academically well prepared for college can struggle along the way to their degrees. Colleges that have an institutional culture where administrators, faculty, and staff see it as their role to provide support in the transition to college can be particularly beneficial for students who didn’t grow up in contexts where college-going is the norm. Colleges can support students by tailoring orientation sessions, providing additional counselors and mentors, en-suring students are enrolling in classes that lead to degrees, being responsive to financial needs, and encouraging first-generation students to connect with each other and with affinity groups. Absent supports, it’s easy for students to fall off track: currently just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college earn their degrees within six years of enrolling in college.

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Myths about college enrollment and completion

MYTH: College students are usually continuously enrolled at one post-secondary institution.

The normative view of college—being continuously enrolled at one institution and graduating with a bachelor’s degree—is not typical for many students. Although some students follow this path—and those who do make up the majority of students who completed a degree or credential in our study—most Chicago Public Schools students transferred between colleges, took time off college (or “stopped out”), and/or delayed enrollment at some point during the six years after high school graduation. Indeed, many students experienced a transition within just their first two years after high school. For K–12 and college educators who did not experience these transitions in their own college journeys, it will be critical to examine biases and redefine what is “normal” in order to empathize with, prepare, and support students through this often-complicated experience.

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MYTH: Most two-year college students eventually transfer to a four-year college.

Although we want and need this path to work for Chicago Public Schools students, only 22 percent of immediate two-year enrollees transferred to a four-year college and fewer than 7 percent of immediate two-year enrollees completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. An additional 19 percent completed an associate degree or certificate in six years. There is real value in two-year degrees and certificates, and transferring is not necessary for all students. Still, until the transfer and completion rates improve, we need to be direct with students that starting at a two-year college with the intent of transferring and completing a four-year degree has not been a successful pathway for many graduates.

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MYTH: Students who take time off school usually return and complete a degree.

Though it may sound inconsequential at first glance, our findings suggest that taking time off (or “stopping out”) from college is both common and consequential. In Chicago, more than half of immediate four-year enrollees and four out of five immediate two-year enrollees took at least one semester off of school. Many did not return, and those who did return had significantly lower outcomes than students who stayed: 90 percent of all students who stopped out did not complete a degree or credential within six years. Indeed, for the most part, the only students who stopped out and still completed a degree were students who returned to college after only one semester off. For many graduates, circumstances beyond their control drive the decision to take time off of college, but we need to do everything in our power to stay connected to students and remove barriers that cause students to stop out.

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MYTH: Taking a gap year after high school promotes students’ eventual completion of college.

Taking a “gap year” has become popular with some high school graduates around the country, but the data in this report suggests that for many Chicago Public Schools students, delaying college enrollment results in lower completion rates: only 8 percent of students who delayed college enrollment completed a degree or credential within six years. Not all graduates have the resources or the support structures to enroll directly in college, but counselors should be wary of recommending time off to those who are able to directly enroll in college.

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MYTH: A student’s odds of graduating from college will be the same at any of the colleges he or she is admitted to.

Students of all qualification levels are more likely to graduate from college if they attend a college with a high institutional graduation rate. This is even true for students with strong grades in high school; in fact, college choice matters the most for students with strong academic qualifications. Ultimately, institutional graduation rates are just one factor to consider in finding a good college match, but they can signal to college-bound students how well the institutions they’re interested in are able to support students in their quests to persist through and graduate from college.

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MYTH: Standardized test scores are the most important indicator of success in college.

A good ACT or SAT score isn’t a slam dunk for college success. While ACT/SAT scores matter for college access, grades (GPAs) are much more predictive of college success. In fact, strong grades—earning As and Bs in high school—are the strongest indicator of college readiness and are much more predictive of college grad-ation than any test score. High school GPAs show a very strong relationship with college graduation despite sizable school effects, and the relationship does not differ across high schools. In contrast, the relationship between ACT scores and college graduation is weak-to nothing once school effects are controlled. Students with an ACT score of 21-23 have about a 50 percent chance of graduating college if their high school GPA is between 2.5 and 2.9. Yet students with ACT scores in the same range of 21-23 but with high school GPAs between 3.0 and 3.4 graduate from college at rates of nearly 70 percent.

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MYTH: Good students will succeed anywhere.

The idea that good students will be successful wherever they go to college is deeply intuitive, and appeals to our inclination to center student success solely in the student. However, institutions do play a role in college completion and, the higher a student's academic qualifications, the more important college choice becomes. Specifically, students who attend more selective colleges and universities fare better with respect to college graduation than their similarly qualified peers who attend less selective schools.

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MYTH: Sending students from low-performing high schools to elite colleges is just setting them up to fail.

There is a belief amongst some educators that students from struggling high schools are not equipped to succeed academically at elite institutions. While it is true that low-income and mi-nority students do experience many challenges at elite institutions, high-achieving students from any kind of CPS high school can absolutely succeed at the most selective colleges. Students who are high-achieving, low-income, minority, and/or first generation have proven their ability to be successful in the face of adversity. We should be ensuring that these students have access to our greatest opportunities, not withholding them.

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The To&Through Project: Busting myths about what really matters for high school and college success

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