Among Asian-American Students, Pacific Islanders Struggle

By Catherine Gewertz — August 11, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As federal lawmakers hash out a final rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, it’s a good time to take a little field trip to visit some striking data about students of Asian descent.

One of the questions debated as the House and Senate developed their bills was whether states would be required to report the performance of student subgroups, such as those of racial or ethnic minorities. As my colleague Alyson Klein reports, both versions of the bill currently maintain No Child Left Behind’s mandate to disaggregate that performance data.

But reporting performance results by the typical subgroups—black, Hispanic, Asian, white—overlooks the reality of a more complicated student achievement picture. In the days before No Child Left Behind, our schools were able to mask the struggles of many students, and many groups of students, with overall performance numbers. Love it or hate it, No Child Left Behind forced a painful coming-out for schools that weren’t doing right by millions of students, especially those students from racial or ethnic minority groups, from low-income households, or those still learning English or dealing with learning disabilities.

Congress appears to be moving forward on legislation that will preserve subgroup reporting. But it hasn’t moved the needle on breaking it down any further, either. Recent data released by ACT reminds us that the model minority myth—you know, that familiar story line about how Asian students outperform all others—is harmful because it masks the struggles of subgroups of Asians (typically Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians).

In analyzing the performance of students on the ACT college admissions exam, the Iowa testmaker has broken out Pacific Islanders for separate examination, and it’s not a pretty picture: These students are struggling. The ACT’s report on Asian students in the class of 2014 shows that 57 percent of Asian students met three of the four ACT college-readiness benchmarks, compared with only 24 percent of Pacific Islanders. You can see how this attainment varies by race and ethnicity:

The gap shows up in college aspirations, too. Eighty-five percent of Asian students and 83 percent of Pacific Islander students reported that they plan to go to college, but while 52 percent of Asian students said they wanted to earn a graduate or professional degree, only 33 percent of Pacific Islander students said they had those goals.

ACT and others are working to break down student subgroup performance into smaller chunks, so educators and policymakers can more clearly see who needs help. In its recent round of work to scrutinize Pacific Islanders, ACT ran into one challenge right away: census data. Spokesman Ed Colby said that ACT is trying to keep its reports consistent with the way the U.S. government classifies populations, and the only Asian subgroup the U.S. Census classifies separately is Pacific Islanders.

ACT and other organizations are working with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House on additional ways to disaggregate student achievement data, and Colby said they are meeting next month here in Washington for another round of discussions. (Here’s some official info on the government’s iCounts initiative.)

“These reports show how important it is to pay attention to the vast discrepancies within a diverse group of students that are often regarded collectively as the ‘model minority,’” Jim Larimore, ACT’s chief officer for the advancement of underserved students, said in a statement issued with the Aug. 7 release of the two reports. “The reality is more complex, particularly for those students who come from low-income families or are the first in their families to go to college.”

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.