New law breaking down student ethnic data triggers battle among parents


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.