Questions raised about CA data on Southeast Asian students

A high school student reads and answers examination questions. (Photo: Arrowsmith2, via Shutterstock)

California collects voluminous data on its residents every year, but the huge trove of information is flawed – and officials are trying to figure out why.

A prime example of this is the data taken from 11th-grade public high school students taking an annual state-wide standardized test.

The test is called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASP. The results, posted months later, break down the students’ demographics, including race, income levels, disability status, and English-speaking levels, to name just a few.

The data reports do not break down the race demographics into their ethnicities.

The data is crucial because policymakers and educators use the vast database to understand the students and their communities, and see the data as a yardstick for fiscal support and school programs.

But there is a problem: The data reports do not break down the race demographics into their ethnicities. And this has proven to be of major importance in the Southeast Asian American community, or SEA.

Under the grouping of “Asian” are numerous diverse and unique communities. One such group is SEA, and breaking down – “disaggregation” is the statistician’s term — has been advocated for decades by officials at the federal, state, and local levels.

But change appears to be coming: On June 15,  Karvin Orvis, chief statistician of the United States, announced that his office will begin revising the Office of Management and Budget’s Statistical Policy directive, “Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.”

What does this have to do with California and the biggest Southeast Asian American community in the country that resides in it?

“Ultimately, this will help ensure the standards better reflect the diversity of the American people,” Orvis said in his White House address.

Orvis has been joined by Sacramento Mayor Daryl Steinberg in support of the initiative.

In a Capitol Weekly interview with the mayor regarding data collecting and reporting, Steinberg said that government entities, both federal and state institutions, do not report data effectively. He noted the urgency to change current data collecting and reporting practices.

There is a monolithic view shared by many in America that all Asian people are either from China, Japan, or South Korea.

When asked if he supported a bill that would implement data disaggregation policies, Mayor Steinberg said, “Absolutely. Yes, I would support a bill for data disaggregation.”

Historically, Southeast Asian Americans have been underrepresented through all levels of educational attainment compared with the overall Asian American population.

This is primarily because the overwhelming majority of data reports categorize anyone of Asian ancestry with the term “Asian” instead of breaking it down by different ethnicities.

Many Southeast Asian American families escaped war and political persecution, reside in underserved communities, attend underserved schools, and are some of the first people in their families to graduate high school and go on to higher education. But they are all hidden behind the monolithic Asian view that all Asian people are either from China, Japan, or South Korea — a view shared by many people in America.

Researchers say that due to various factors such as those mentioned earlier, Southeast Asian American students struggle to succeed in K-12 and graduate from high school, or later in their attempts to attend a four-year university.

Schools with a dense Southeast Asian ethnic enclave will not perform as well on standardized exams compared to the overall Asian American population, according to the data.

That data can be found in the 2018-2019 CAASPP mathematics results at various California high schools that have Southeast Asian American students as their majority Asian demographic.

Six schools were examined: Valley High School in Elk Grove Unified School District and Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento Unified School District, respectively, both located in South Sacramento.

Fresno High School and Mclane High School both are a part of Fresno Unified School District in Central California, while Cabrillo High School and Jordan High School are part of the Long Beach Unified School District.

Disparities immediately emerged. Fresno High School and Cabrillo High School had zero students who identified as Asian and exceeded the state math standard.

Less than 20% of the students who took the test exceeded the state standard for each school.
The four high schools that did have students who exceeded the state standard did not reach 20% of the total population.

All the high schools have more students who nearly met or did not meet the state standard than those who did meet or exceed it.

If the state has this ethnic breakdown, why doesn’t it report it?

So, what does this data really mean?

The key takeaway is that policymakers and educators who do not know the ethnography of those schools would not know that most students from these high schools are most likely Southeast Asian Americans and not East Asian or South Asian since CAASPP, which is under the Department of Education, reported the demographic as Asian.

It is interesting to note that on the Department of Education’s Question and Answer page regarding data collection for race and ethnicity, they do outrightly state that according to California Government Code (GC) Section 8310.5, “state agencies are required to collect data for each major Asian and Pacific island group.” Examples of the groups are Cambodian, Chinese, Guamanian, Hmong, Samoan, and Vietnamese. This government code means that authorities do have an ethnic breakdown at least in the education field.

Well, if the state has this ethnic breakdown, why doesn’t it report it?

There is no clear answer — yet.  It is unclear why agencies such as the data reporting team from CAASPP do not disaggregate their data despite having an ethnic breakdown for the Asian demographic.

The available findings validate how SEAA students continue to struggle in school. This contains an implicit call for action to policymakers and educators to investigate this data, as well as listen to the community and organizations that are trying to support the SEAA community to best support them.

The “refugees and their descendants have different historical backgrounds, cultures, and challenges that are made invisible by the label of Asian American.” — Natalie Truong

One of the organizations is the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, a nonprofit entity dedicated to empowering and advocating for the SEA community.

Recently Natalie Truong , SEARAC’s Education Policy Manager, had this to say when she read Orvis’ plans regarding SPD-15.

“Given the urgency of the need to further disaggregate data for Asian Americans and the recommendations made by our communities over the years, the SPD-15 revision needs to come sooner.”

It has been decades since the first Southeast Asian refugees came to America. Yet, there has been little support and acknowledgment for a community that has endured so much. State policymakers have the potential and ability to uplift and empower the next generation of Southeast Asian American youth by proposing similar disaggregated data policies to best serve the community.

“SEAA refugees and their descendants have different historical backgrounds, cultures, and challenges that are made invisible by the label of Asian American,” Truong said.

Editor’s Note: Steven Tran is a Capitol Weekly intern from UCLA.

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