Incorrect Assumptions about Asian Americans Lead to Academic Problems - Higher Education
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Incorrect Assumptions about Asian Americans Lead to Academic Problems

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by Jim Larimore

Jim Larimore

Jim Larimore

With warm weather emerging, my two sons and I are back to playing pickup games on our driveway basketball court, and I’m reminded of how much they’ve grown since last year. It’s compelled me to change the way I play with them and adapt to their evolving strengths and talents on “the court.”

 

If I ignored their growth and didn’t adjust in response, I’d miss the chance to teach them new skills. They might lose interest in basketball entirely and feel that I didn’t really “see” their potential or ability. In education, we take a similar risk with our students when we let outmoded and inaccurate misperceptions inform our understanding of their backgrounds and abilities.

 

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar in how our education system regards Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students: many fall behind because we incorrectly assume they are all the same and destined for academic success and need little — if any — help. Or we cause them to feel invisible because they have learned to assume that many educators perceive them as members of a monolithic model minority.

 

As a country, we need to change our game. The fact is that there are more than 300 languages and 48 ethnicities lumped into the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) category that we commonly use in reporting education data.

 

The AAPI community includes an incredibly diverse set of national and ethnic identities with widely different cultures from an enormous region that spans from China, Japan and Korea to Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, to India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, and to the islands of Hawai’i, Guam, Micronesia and Samoa.

 

We have inherited the practice of combining data on students from these diverse backgrounds into a broad category that prevents us from accurately understanding and responding to their unique needs. In other words, we need to “disaggregate” the data if we are to recognize, understand and accurately meet the needs of AAPI students.

 

Some notable efforts are already underway — at ACT, we began disaggregating data about academic performance for Pacific Islanders separately from Asian Americans in 2011. As a result, for the past four years our annual reports, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness,” reveal a large gap in performance between students in these two groups.

 

On average, while only 17 percent of Pacific Islander students met all four of ACT’s readiness benchmarks, 42 percent of Asian American students have. Prior to separating out these two groups, the stark performance gap was buried. We expect this trend to continue this year, when we release the 2015 reports at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) annual Higher Education Summit in Washington next month.

 

For the past eight years, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander American Research in Education (CARE) project, guided by UCLA professor Robert Teranishi, has led the iCount initiative, which is an effort to encourage this type of data disaggregation among institutions, states and the federal government.

 

Neil Horikoshi and his colleagues at APIASF have played a critical role in supporting and advocating for this work. Kiran Ahuja, Akhil Vohra, Doua Thor and staff at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to play a pivotal leadership role in bringing greater visibility to these efforts through a series of national summits at the White House, and by fostering connections between the people and organizations that are involved in advancing this work at the state and local levels.

 

The picture that is starting to emerge suggests that we need to further separate our data among various AAPI groups, as there are stark contrasts in achievement among the various subgroups of U.S. adults that fall under the wide AAPI umbrella category.

 

For instance, while fewer than half of U.S. adults of Southeast Asian descent (Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong and Vietnamese ethnicities) have attended college (and college completion rates are notably lower), more than 70 percent of U.S. adults of Asian Indian, Filipino, Japanese or Korean descent have. It’s not hard to imagine that the children of the latter groups are more likely to have someone at home to guide them in the process of preparing for college.

 

Consider also that AAPIs have experienced the largest growth of any major race group in the country, increasing 46 percent in total number from 2000 to 2010, to 17.3 million, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

 

Overall, it’s becoming increasingly vital for us to understand how students from all diverse cultural and linguistic groups experience our educational systems. Data that accounts for their varying backgrounds can help us answer questions about the range of individual strengths and challenges that influence each student’s ability to achieve readiness for college and career.

 

Beyond the numbers and analysis, however, we must spur action to effect change. For students to reach their potential, we need to not only improve our ability to disaggregate data, but compel policymakers and education leaders to act on our findings and recommendations. As we move forward with our efforts, our success in reaching that goal will directly impact the ability of our students from all backgrounds to reach their potential and succeed. 

 

Jim Larimore is chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners at ACT, where he leads development of programs and partnerships to improve college and career readiness for underserved learners.

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