Beware the Red Herrings: For the Students We Serve, Not Much Has Changed

by Yoon S. Choi, Ph.D.

The past few years have been marked by apocalyptic-level changes in American education; yet, the great crisis we face today is what remains unchanged.

Every headline heralds either a crisis or revolutionary innovation; they tout the shift to online and hybrid instruction, the emergence of AI and Chat GPT, the test optional movement in higher-ed, the end to affirmative action, and skepticism about the value of a college degree. However, for the majority of Black and Brown students who dream of a college degree, not much has changed to improve their college-going prospects or access the accompanying lifelong benefits.

CollegeSpring, the organization I lead, has faced these headlines and the confusion they create head on.  Our mission is to improve the standardized test scores of underrepresented students through in-school test preparation that their own teachers deliver. People are often surprised, even shocked, that not only do we still exist in today’s ever-changing landscape but continue to expand our reach. What many thought were headwinds were in fact the tailwinds that propel our work forward.

We remain focused with our noses to the ground, working with and for the people whose day-to-day efforts remain unaffected by the dominant and generalizing narratives. Our work prioritizes: students who still aim for a shot at a postsecondary degree, despite being told that a low-level job is more practical; students who must take the SAT/ ACT as a requirement for graduation or scholarships, but they are misinformed by the test optional landscape; teachers who are not replaceable by technology, but do need training; district leaders who are incentivized to help students better prepare for tests, but their budgets are continuously slashed. Repeatedly, our partnerships with educators, schools, and districts show that while a select group–the academic cream of the crop—may benefit from or be harmed by some of the recent changes, it is a dire mistake to assume that’s the case for all. It is also a mistake to assume that something that impacts a small and select group of people  will equally impact the masses.

The recent Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action in college admissions is a blow to underrepresented students who dream of attending the most competitive universities; it is also a clarion call for us to ensure that all underrepresented students are able to earn a college degree if they choose. The reality is that race-conscious admissions were always limited to a small number of students. Less than 200 selective universities, like Harvard and UNC,  are thought to practice affirmative action, which amounts to merely 15,000 students annually—2% of all Black, Hispanic, or Native American students in 4-year colleges. More than half of U.S. students go to a school that admits at least three-quarters of its applicants. For the majority of America’s Black and Brown college students, affirmative action matters as little to them now as it did before the decision.

Similarly, test optional policies increase opportunity for a select few and not the masses. More than 90% of CollegeSpring’s students are impacted by poverty. Most conversations with the adults in their lives requires demystifying the implications of test-optional policies that boast equity or ease. In fact, for most students, rich or poor,  white or Black, higher test scores still provide a competitive advantage when they are ‘optional.’ In 2022, 3 million students took the SAT and ACT. Meanwhile, millions of other students and their parents  received the memo that tests no longer matter. Which students, then, are getting the message that tests won’t help them, and why? The ones for whom resources and access to the right information are always in short supply. That is what deserves our interrogation and critique. 

Right now, the headlines are red herrings that anchor our gaze in the wrong direction. What remains unchanged is that student readiness is critical for postsecondary success. Today, reading and math scores are the lowest in decades. The lowest results are among Black and Brown students, who are not ready to read by third grade or sometimes even college. We must boost all students  to an equal ‘baseline’ before we consider what policies impact their ‘finish line.’ Raising students to grade level in core subjects as quickly as possible requires a Marshall Plan for Education; empowering educators is crucial to the plan’s everyday and long-term success. We must collectively focus on supporting teachers with the time, pay, and professional development that equips them to better prepare and instill confidence in our students, ensuring they are ready to cross both the baseline and finish line.

The importance and implications of overturning years of precedent in higher education are immense. There is a world of difference between upholding or striking down laws that propel and protect students’ advancement, and we must be on guard against anything that further threatens the future of our students. It is imperative that we not become distracted by the headlines but remain diligent in solving the deep, systemic problems that continue to plague our education landscape. The future of our workforce, communities, and society depends on our ability to do so.