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.
A 2011 study found that 54.8 percent of Minnesota’s young Asian-American students were proficient in math. But there were stark differences among ethnic groups: 83.1 percent for students of Chinese descent (highest in the state); 36.6 percent for those with a Hmong background; and 12.1 percent for kids of Karen heritage (lowest in the state). The latter figure reflects the influx of refugee Karen students who are still learning English and have parents who may have spent decades in refugee camps. Similarly wide variations persisted in reading proficiency.
“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.
Working with the Roseville School District, he realized that Karen parents often didn’t show up to parent-teacher conferences even when notices were translated in their language — they carried assumptions from their homeland that it was solely the school’s responsibility to educate students.
“They don’t understand the school system here,” said Khu, co-executive director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota.
But the concept has also drawn opposition in the Twin Cities Asian-American community, and a bill to repeal it has drawn wide support among people concerned about ethnic profiling.
Eden Prairie Council Member P.G. Narayanan, an Indian immigrant, disputed any link between ethnic background and academic performance, and questioned the value of using such categories with children who are second- and third-generation Americans — a view echoed by a range of Chinese-Americans. Foes of the All Kids Count law say the state should simply help struggling students without regard to their cultural background.
Some opposition in the Chinese-American community reflects concerns about past discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese laborers from immigrating for many decades, and domestic segregation drove the creation of Chinatowns and barred Chinese-Americans from white schools.
The legislation, authored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, was held over last month for consideration in the education omnibus bill.
Chinese parents and other Asians “see data disaggregation as part of this broader picture of affirmative action, which they believe is taking away their spots in college to succeed,” said Mary Szto, who has researched discrimination against Chinese people and is a visiting professor at Mitchell-Hamline School of Law.
Szto said that after World War II, people of Asian heritage were held up as a model minority, “which meant they were better than other minorities in assimilating to white culture. Asians were being used as a way to shame other minority groups and basically as a political pawn.
She said the model minority myth hurts all Asian-Americans: Those who have more educational resources are expected to get higher test scores than everyone else; those who lack resources are less likely to get help.
Zoe Zhi, a Chinese immigrant and Woodbury mother of three, said outstanding Asian-American students may be held to higher standards in college admissions or employment, and that opponents of data disaggregation see their effort as just the beginning of fighting potential discrimination.
“Once you identify the ethnic groups separately and then you engage in racial and ethnic profiling … that’s a slippery slope to go down,” she said.