Tucked away in an obscure paragraph of the most recent report from the College Board on the discouraging drop in S.A.T. scores among college-bound high-school seniors is a rather astounding set of results that was virtually ignored or completely overlooked in the reporting of that story.
The highest-scoring group of students, when considering results by ethnic category, were Asian Americans. Their combined average score on the verbal and mathematics sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test was 938, while the national average was 900, and the second highest-scoring ethnic group, whites, averaged 933. (Scores can range from 400 to 1600.)
What is surprising about this performance by the Asian-American test-takers is that 43 percent of them reported that they first learned a language other than English. The same percentage--43 percent--were not yet citizens of the United States, meaning, at a minimum, that these 43 percent were born in some other country. It seems safe to assume that these students are living and learning in what to them is a foreign culture and in a non-native language. Yet, they are doing so at a level better than the natives, including whites, while attending the very same schools that virtually everyone agrees are mediocre at best, horrible, at worst.
What’s going on here?
On the verbal portion of the test alone, Asian Americans outperformed Native Americans, blacks, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Rican students by 22, 58, 30, and 51 points respectively, and underperformed whites by just 22 points. On math, the differences were even more dramatic, with Asian-American students outperforming those same groups by 91, 143, 99, 123, and 37 points respectively.
Perhaps the S.A.T. is biased in favor of Asian Americans? Sure, the test developers are so bright and ingenious that they have managed to devise a test that favors recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and disfavors all other Americans. Not likely.
There may well be a gold mine of information waiting for serious researchers to explore as they look for the root cause of the general decline in American students’ academic performance. It is more than a little ironic, though, that American schools seem to serve best the most inherently alien of their clientele-non-citizens, non-native English speakers from a non-Western culture! “Miraculous” might be a more apt descriptor.
What are some possible explanations for such extraordinary performance by Asian Americans? Several come readily to mind, but certainly require further exploration:
• Parents who value their children’s education so much that they inculcate the centrality of that education into every aspect of their everyday lives.
• Parents who actively monitor and supplement what the schools teach their children.
• Parents, and therefore children, who believe that academic effort and hard work are rewarded with accomplishment.
• Parents, and therefore students, who support the schools.
• Parents, and therefore students, who believe in taking the most challenging courses in the greatest numbers.
Some very intensive case studies might prove extremely revealing in examining these points.
One thing seems crystal clear. Before throwing out in toto America’s schools as we have known them, it would be productive to look at how and why these very schools seem to work so well for what can only be considered a most singular and unlikely minority, the Asian Americans.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1990 edition of Education Week