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Magnet Schools Mirror Myths

Asian Week, Commentary, Doua Thor Posted: Sep 12, 2008

A growing trend in enrollment patterns at our nations prestigious and competitive magnet schools shows Asian American students quickly outpacing their Hispanic, African American and white peers. Following this trend, common wisdom would assume that Asian American students throughout the United States are thriving and excelling academically.

Trusting this common wisdom casts shadows on the challenges facing many Asian American and Pacific Islander students in Americas schools. It perpetuates the model minority myth - the false idea that all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are achieving above and beyond their white counterparts. Asian American and Pacific Islander students who succeed certainly deserve celebration, but we also need to pay attention to the bigger picture of educational disservice that is plaguing many Asian American and Pacific Islander students.

Currently, federal, state and local data do not report the academic performance of Asian American and Pacific Islander students by racial subgroup, and education policy does not require this level of detail. As a result, the success of some students in school districts nationwide is overshadowing the needs of many. Because, as a whole, Asian American students are scoring higher than students of any other race on proficiency tests, it appears that there should be no concern over their performance.

Numerous reports including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight, recently released by the College Board and New York University, indicate that, as a result of long-held beliefs in the model minority myth, teachers, counselors and administrators simply do not recognize how Asian American and Pacific Islander students struggle with some of the same issues as their peers. In reality, the collective data are telling a tall tale that is false to its core and detrimental to student success.

Research shows that significant gaps exist between the graduation rates reported by states and the real numbers of students-including Southeast Asian American students-who graduate on time, with a regular diploma. While 84 percent of the total U.S. population 25 years and over is a high school graduate or higher according to the Census, only 65 percent of Cambodian, 62 percent of Laotian and 72 percent of Vietnamese Americans are high school graduates. In academic evaluation, these numbers are obscured by inaccurate data, inconsistent measures, misleading calculations or no data at all. Often, the progress made by the more than 50 Asian subgroups represented in our schools or success of the students who speak more than a dozen Southeast Asian languages in classrooms across the country are never considered. In turn, Asian American and Pacific Islander students are often placed in the wrong grade level or bilingual classroom or misplaced in special education, and their schools are failing them.

Reliable, meaningful information about student performance is critical to providing states, districts and the public with an accurate portrayal of graduation rates and student performance, indicators that are essential to improving education policy and practice. Accurate and dependable information is particularly essential to informing critical decisions that can benefit all students of color and low-income students by increasing graduation rates, improving teacher quality and providing adequate and appropriate academic supports.

A quality high school education should prepare graduates for college, work and life. Without strong data systems, educators, parents, policymakers and advocates have no real way of knowing whether or not Asian American and Pacific Islander students or any minority or low-income student is performing well, has the supports that he or she needs or is even graduating. Accurate and disaggregated data are critical to strengthening the teaching and learning process.

To debunk the model minority myth, education policy must provide consistent guidelines for data reporting that are inclusive of ethnicities. With the right action, Congress can close the achievement gap for all students. Without it, Asian American and Pacific Islander students in need are not only left behind-they are invisible.

Doua Thor is executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. SEARAC is a member of the Campaign for High School Equity, a civil rights coalition that strives for education policy that prepares all students to be successful in work and life.

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