Popular media would have us believe that all Asian American and Pacific Islander students are part of the “model minority” or are parented by “tiger moms” who push them towards overachievement in areas such as math and music. The common assumption is that Asian American and Pacific Islander students excel in school without any outside help. The fact is that these students are far from homogenous when it comes to academic achievement, and actually share the educational challenges facing other students of color.
The latest demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau underscore why we cannot ignore the diverse educational needs of these students. According to newly released results from the 2010 Census, Asian American and Pacific Islander populations grew faster than any other racial group between 2000 and 2010. The Asian American population increased by 43 percent while the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population increased by more than one-third.
Low academic achievement is a pressing issue for Asian American and Pacific Islander students. A 2010 Education Trust-West report identified alarming gaps in California, a state with a significant proportion of these students. Among Pacific Islander students in the eighth grade, only 44 percent score at the “proficient” level in English; this figure is 46 percent for Cambodian students and 40 percent for Laotian students. While almost 80 percent of Korean students reached proficiency in Algebra I, only 35 percent of Laotian students and 23 percent of Samoan students scored at that level. By the time Asian American and Pacific Islander students reach the end of high school, 7 out of 10 of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.
Nationwide, Asian American and Pacific Islander students also struggle with high school and college completion. Forty percent of Hmong adolescents do not complete high school. While 27 percent of Americans have at least a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders do.
Asian American and Pacific Islander students also experience challenges related to income and language access. Roughly one-third of Asian American students and more than half of Pacific Islander students come from low-income families. Nearly one out of four students is an English language learner and/or lives in a linguistically isolated household with parents who have limited English proficiency.
Closing achievement gaps for Asian American and Pacific Islander students needs to be part of our larger effort to improve the achievement of educationally disadvantaged children. Good teachers are paramount to raising the achievement levels of all students. Ensuring fiscal equity is also critical, since 30 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander students attend high-poverty schools. Expanding learning time can provide English language learners with more instruction.
The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main education law, is an important opportunity to address the educational needs of all students. In addition to policy changes, more disaggregated data is needed to better understand trends in academic achievement across various states. The Census results remind us that as our nation grows increasingly diverse, conversations around achievement gaps and their solutions must include Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and their students.
Theodora Chang is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.