Asian-American achievements mask disparity
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Can a good stereotype be bad?
That's the question addressed in a new report from the College Board and New York University investigating the academic performance of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
As far back as the 1960s, Asian-Americans were characterized as the "model minority" for their educational and socioeconomic success. But the reality, said the report, is not so rosy.
As a whole, it is true that Asian-Americans have higher test scores and educational achievement than the general population, said the report.
For example, census figures show 44.1 percent of Asian-Americans (excluding Pacific Islanders) have a bachelor's degree, compared with 24.4 percent of the total U.S. population. But among the Southeast Asian subgroups of Cambodian and Hmong, less than half of those older than 25 have even completed high school.
"Asian-Americans as one overall group have above-average income and above-average education," said U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., at a news conference. "Instead of having people gathered toward the middle, what you have is two populations. One high income, high educational achievement, a second, equally important group with low income and low educational achievement."
That disparity also shows itself in SAT scores. As a group, Asians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders outperform whites and every other ethnic group (a 1605 average score out of 2400 versus a 1579 score for whites, the next-highest scoring group).
But Asians also have more variation in their SAT scores than any other group. The College Board cited a 1989 study showing that while Asians were six times overrepresented at the top end, they were also five times overrepresented in the bottom scores.
Rather than fitting into the stereotype of Asians all attending elite colleges, more Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are enrolled in community colleges than in any other educational sector, said the report.
So what is the harm in a stereotype that is more positive than the reality?
The issue, said the authors and promoters of the report, is that some Asian-Americans are not getting the support that they need.
"It has been an education process to convince folks that we are not an ethnic group every one of which has just graduated from Harvard," said Mr. Wu.
Robert A. Underwood, president of the University of Guam, noted the difficulties he'd faced persuading corporations and other donors to contribute to a national scholarship fund for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders because of the belief that Asians didn't need scholarships as much as other groups.
Deborah Wei, principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia, spoke at the news conference about the challenges in getting English-language instruction and translators for parents at her school, where 92 percent of her students qualify for free lunches and 65 percent of them are Asian-American.
The report also examined whether Asian-Americans are benefiting or suffering from affirmative action policies, and whether pressure to achieve has adversely affected the mental health of Asian students.
"There are exceptional Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who are extremely accomplished, and they are a source of pride and inspiration," said the report. "But it is simply not true that they are typical."
First Published June 10, 2008 12:00 am