When analyzing student performance by race, Minnesota combines a widely diverse group — children of new Karen refugees from Myanmar, sons and daughters of Chinese graduate students, and descendants of Hmong farmers — into one broad category: Asian-American.
That will soon change under a little publicized “data disaggregation” law that allows the state to collect more detailed ethnic information on students, in an effort to better understand which groups are struggling and how to help. But it has also led to outrage among some Asian-Americans, particularly those of Chinese descent, who say the practice is racist and could be used against them.
“The passion that we’re seeing flare up … has been an outlier in terms of the level of activity that we usually see from the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community,” said Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
The stuff of statisticians has become a flash point for Asian-Americans nationally. A lawsuit that accuses Harvard of discriminating against them, for example, has stirred a debate about whether elite academic institutions hold such students to higher standards as “model minorities” and artificially cap their admission numbers. Critics of data disaggregation fear that it opens the door to higher-performing Asian-Americans receiving fewer resources and opportunities. Asian-Americans have mobilized to try to stop similar measures in California, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in recent years.
In Minnesota and nationally, Asian-Americans as a whole have higher levels of education and academic achievement than other minorities — in some cases surpassing whites — driven largely by an influx of highly skilled, well-educated immigrants.
But Minnesota’s case is unusual in that nearly two-thirds of its Asian-American population comes from southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Many are Hmong, an ethnic group from remote mountainous regions with little access to formal schooling and where cultural traditions were largely oral. Language barriers and poverty have remained obstacles in America.
Wide disparity in academic performance among Asian students
Minnesota is implementing a law that would collect more detailed data on students’ ethnic backgrounds to better understand which groups need more resources. Among Asian-Americans, for instance, there are broad educational disparities.
“So our highest-performing students … and our lowest-performing students were all wrapped up in the category of Asian, which meant that we weren’t strategically placing resources or focusing policy or really understanding the communities and the students that we were serving,” said Josh Crosson, senior policy director for the education advocacy organization EdAllies.
The All Kids Count law, passed in 2016, aimed to address such disparities. The state Department of Education is collecting detailed ethnic data on minority groups from five school districts during the 2018-19 year, including St. Paul, Minnetonka and Worthington, and will post the breakdown of graduation rates and Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments math and reading scores in the summer. White students are not being asked about the details of their ancestry.
The agency is using a federal grant of nearly $2 million to set up a data-collection system as it prepares to launch the program at another 100 school districts in the coming school year. The process relies on parents filling out a form about their child’s ethnic background, though they can decline to answer.
Eh Tah Khu is eager to see the more detailed data. A refugee himself, he said that Karen parents can’t always help children with homework if they don’t speak English, are working late shifts and received little schooling themselves.