Equity & Diversity

The ‘Other’ Gap

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 13, 2007 9 min read
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When his teacher asks for volunteers to solve a problem in an advanced mathematics class, Matt Kishiyama says it’s not unusual for a classmate to offer him up by remarking, “Let Matt do it, he’s Asian.”

Steve Kay makes light of being enrolled in Algebra 1 as a 10th grader, saying, “I’m not the smart Asian. I guess I got the dumb gene.”

Both boys are students at Annandale High School in suburban Washington, in what is regarded as one of the best public school systems in the country. Both are Asian-American. Both have parents who encourage them to do well. But their school experience and performance have been anything but similar.

When it comes to academic achievement, it is indisputable that, as a group, Asian-American students like Mr. Kishiyama—a 17-year-old senior who has had only one B-plus to mar an otherwise perfect high school grade point average—outperform their African-American and Latino peers on every measure. By most measures, they also beat white students.

But another truth, much less acknowledged in education and policy circles, is that the story of Asian-American academic achievement is a complicated one. The oft-cited data that portray a diverse community of students as uniformly academically successful ignore the experiences of students like 15-year-old Mr. Kay.

"When kids say things or make jokes about Asian kids being smarter, it doesn't bother me. It's not some stereotype that I feel like I have to live up to. I do well because I want to do well." Matt Kishiyama, 17, senior at Annandale High School

In fact, in the ongoing debate about student achievement—and how to close the seemingly intractable gap between the lowest and highest performers—discussion of Asian-American students, whether stellar or struggling, is often absent. The focus is almost exclusively on bringing African-American and Hispanic students up to the level of their non-Hispanic white peers.

But what about closing the “top gap,” between the most outstanding Asian-American students and their white classmates? Why aren’t educators and policymakers talking about low-achieving Asian-American students, who they are, and what should be done to help them catch up? And what effect does the widely held assumption that all Asian-Americans do well in school regardless of social class or ethnic background—the “model minority” stereotype—have on students across the achievement spectrum?

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Making Higher Ed. History, Headlines

“These are incredibly powerful stereotypes and, in many ways, Asians are still below the radar,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who is an expert on issues of race and achievement. “They don’t have the advocates that other groups do, and, in general, they are not as at-risk as blacks or Latinos. But it’s a huge mistake to keep generalizing as we do about Asian-American students and to treat them as a monolithic group that doesn’t need attention.”

A look at the numbers makes it easy to understand why students of Asian heritage are often cast as academic success stories. By many measures, they are excelling in school.

Though there’s little difference between the performance of whites and Asian-Americans in the early grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a gap opens up by high school.

In the Early Grades ...

Differences in achievement between white and Asian-American students aren’t very pronounced on reading and mathematics tests in 4th and 8th grades, as shown in data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Assessment of Educational Progress

... But in High School, Asian-American Students Sign Up for Harder Classes, Take More AP Tests, and Score Highest on the SAT in Mathematics

Students of Asian heritage in the class of 2006 were more likely than students of any other racial or ethnic group to take challenging courses in high school.

*Click image to see the full chart.


For the class of 2006, students of Asian heritage posted the highest SAT scores in mathematics of all student groups.

*Click image to see the full chart.


Asian students made up 5.2 percent of the class of 2005, but more than 10 percent of those taking Advanced Placement tests.


SOURCE: The College Board

In 2005, for example, Asian-Americans made up 5.2 percent of the national population of graduating seniors, but represented more than 10 percent of that same group who took an Advanced Placement exam for college credit, according to the College Board, the New York City-based organization that sponsors the tests. White students, by comparison, constituted 66.2 percent of graduating seniors nationwide, and 63.4 percent of the group taking an AP exam.

Asian-Americans also enroll in colleges and universities in far higher proportions than their overall share of the U.S. population, which is 4.2 percent, according to the 2000 Census. At the nation’s elite institutions, such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they make up as much as 25 percent of the undergraduate student body. Their percentages are even higher in the prestigious University of California system.

“We usually find that Asian-Americans are overrepresented in the highest measures of achievement relative to their representation in the population, more than whites,” said Michael T. Nettles, the senior vice president of the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service. “What is it about Asian-Americans and their experience that is yielding these high levels of performance? What can we learn from their experience that can be instructive for the other groups of students?”

To answer such questions, though, requires delving into uncomfortable issues of culture and class. Every explanation has the potential to offend.

Are Asian-Americans smarter, as Matt Kishiyama’s Annandale High School classmates seem to believe? Are they more disciplined? Are Asian parents more demanding of their children? Are there differences if students are Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Cambodian?

Experts say Asian cultural traits are used too often to explain academic success. Relying on that analysis, they say, masks critical factors such as family income, parental education levels, and how recently families immigrated to the U.S., which affect Asian-American young people just as they do other students.

Tobias Dienstfrey, a math teacher at Annandale High who teaches Algebra 1 as well as the highest-level math courses in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, offers one observation for why his Asian-American students, many the children of Korean and Vietnamese immigrants, are often the best in his class.

"I procrastinate a lot even though people assume I wouldn't because I'm in IB."Tina Le, 17, senior at Annandale High School

“They have the most meticulous homework, they don’t skip steps, and they always do the homework,” he said. “They seem to care about their grades more than the other students, and, from what these kids tell me, a lot of that comes from their parents.”

Family pressure to get straight A’s, in fact, is what drives Tina Le, a 17-year-old senior at Annandale, to do well. Ms. Le, whose parents left Vietnam during the war there, said the pressure not to disappoint her mother and father has led her, at times, to hide B and C grades from them. Some of her courses are a real struggle, but Ms. Le has maintained a 3.5 grade point average.

“My parents are very strict and traditional; they want me to focus only on my studies so that I can go to a good college,” Ms. Le said. “It’s hard, because they want me to be the best in the whole family. My mom always says to me, ‘Don’t let your cousins beat you.’ ”

At the 2,400-student Annandale High, in the Fairfax County, Va., school district, the entrenched stereotypes about who the high achievers are don’t fit neatly. The school is located in Annandale, an older, middle-class Virginia suburb of the District of Columbia that has, in the last decade or so, become known unofficially as Koreatown for its thriving district of Korean-owned restaurants and other businesses. The school, where 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, has an open-enrollment policy for its ap and ib courses.

The student body is remarkably diverse: 22 percent Asian-American, 17 percent African-American, 27.5 percent Hispanic, and 31 percent non-Hispanic white. Asian-American students—the largest groups at the school are Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian or other South Asian—are often the top students, but not exclusively so. Last year, two of the top 10 graduates were Asian-American, as were seven of the 19 seniors who graduated with an International Baccalaureate diploma.

Even some of the school’s staff members were surprised to find that Asian-American students weren’t passing the school’s most challenging courses at higher rates. During the 2004-05 school year, 46.3 percent of Annandale High’s Asian-American students received a C or better in the AP and IB courses they took, compared with 53 percent of white students.

A ‘First’ in California

Last spring, Asian-Americans made up the largest group admitted to the UC system’s undergraduate campuses.


SOURCE: University of California

“It wasn’t what we expected, because I think in the case of Asian-American students, we have said, ‘They are fine, they are taken care of,’ ” said Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High. “We looked at these numbers and realized that we just can’t assume that. More than half of those kids didn’t pass the courses.”

Ms. Le has felt the pressure of such assumptions. “I’ve had one or two of my teachers act shocked when I did bad on a test,” she said. “I guess it’s because I don’t always ask for help.”

Mr. Kay, the Korean-American sophomore, who says he spends more time on athletics than schoolwork, finds himself making assumptions about other Asian-American students. “I think most Asian kids just work harder than everyone else,” he said. “People who don’t know me might think that I am like that too, but I don’t really do my homework.”

Some scholars and advocates argue that better data that break down the one-size-fits-all category of Asian-American into specific ethnic subgroups will show a far more nuanced and varied academic picture, along the lines of what Ms. Albright sees at Annandale High. Drilling down deeper, they argue, would be the first step toward sidelining the “model minority” myth that keeps struggling Asian-American students from getting the help they need.

California, with the nation’s largest population of Asian-American residents, at 12 percent, is in the forefront of doing just that. State test scores are reported in 12 distinct Asian ethnic categories that show tremendous variability among Chinese and Korean students—who tend to score the best—and some Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students, who often score as low as or lower than blacks and Latinos.

“We are not all high achievers,” said Jamie Lew, a Korean-American professor of urban education at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., who recently published Asian Americans in Class, examining differences in the achievement levels of Korean-American youths in New York City. “People are so transfixed by the high-achieving kids, and trying to explain it, that no one thinks to look or ask questions about the flip side.”

Ms. Lew, whose book features interviews with high-achieving Korean students enrolled in a magnet high school in Manhattan and with Korean dropouts earning General Educational Development credentials at a Queens community center, said family social class and “human capital” were the most important indicators of whether the students she studied did well or struggled in school.

“The discourse always revolves around culture issues, those things like ‘Well, Asians do well because they respect their parents more,’ ” Ms. Lew said, “but many high-achieving Asians are doing well because of things like access to good schools and because they have deep community resources to draw from.”

"I'll say to some kid I know, 'Hey, you're Asian and you're smart, come over here and let me copy.'" Steve Kay, 15, sophomore at Annandale High School

While all of the students she interviewed were children of Korean immigrants, she found that most of the high-achieving students had parents who had gone to college in Korea and had tapped into ethnic networks in their adopted home that helped them figure out things like enrolling their children in the best schools, even when their English skills were limited. Many of those same parents were also small-business owners earning enough money to send their children to hagwon, the Korean version of privately run “cram schools” that prepare students for exams.

Ms. Lew found that the Korean-American students who dropped out tended to have parents with little education who worked for their business-owning fellow immigrants. Those parents also had fewer resources within their ethnic communities to find out about schooling options for their children outside of neighborhood schools.

“What this tells us is that even in a relatively homogeneous Asian community like immigrant Koreans, who share a common culture and language, there are big differences in terms of academic achievement,” Ms. Lew said. “The conversation needs to be much more complex.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as The ‘Other’ Gap


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