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Why a new education data law is so important to Minnesota's Asian and Pacific Islander community

Nearly half of Como Elementary's 491 pre-K to grade 5 students are Asian.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Nearly half of Como Elementary's 491 pre-K to grade 5 students are Asian.

All throughout her school years, Naly Yang could never turn to her parents for help with her homework. “They couldn’t speak English,” she said. “I knew I could never ask them for anything with help in terms of homework and academics.”

Despite that, Yang graduated from Central Senior High School in St. Paul and is now attending St. Paul Community and Technical College. But her struggles aren’t unique to her family. Many children of immigrants living across Minnesota face challenges in school, ranging from not speaking English to financial struggles at home, to not having culturally engaging material to learn from in class.

Yet, when looking at Minnesota’s current school data, those struggles aren’t always apparent, especially among students like Yang who are members of the state’s Asian and Pacific Islander (API) population.

But now a recently passed state law is challenging that data, or lack thereof. The bill, the “All Kids Count Act,” was headed by DFL lawmakers Sen. Susan Kent and Rep. Rena Moran, and aims to reveal more nuanced information regarding Minnesota’s student populations — particularly among the state’s API community, whom advocates say are too often categorized under the broad umbrella term of “Asian.”

The law, which will begin being implemented in 2017, will mandate the state’s school districts to collect data on five new categories to report to the Minnesota Department of Education: specific ethnicities who count a population over 1,000; the students’ home language; immigrant or refugee status; and the students’ history with foster care. Earlier this week, MDE also applied for a federal grant of up to $1 million to assist in building new state infrastructure to help collect the new data.

KaYing Yang of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), an advocacy group who lobbied for All Kids Count Act, said the new law will help distinguish just which Asian Minnesotan groups are doing well and which ones are still struggling. “People think we’re all doing very well because a lot of our numbers are skewed by other Asians who are actually doing quite well,” she said. “But many new immigrants such as the Karen are still struggling. When you write down the data, then you can see the nuance.”

Disaggregated data shows deeper disparities

Minnesota now hosts over 40 different Asian cultures, Yang said, including lesser known Southeast Asian populations like the Burmese, Laotian, Indonesian and Karen — groups who often become invisible under the broader term of “Asian American.” “People still feel that Asian Americans are doing very well,” said Yang, “mainly because they only see the aggregate data.”

But “disaggregated data” — a term used for separating aggregated data into smaller subcategories — from a 2012 report from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM) tells a different story than what the Minnesota Department of Education data has shown. According to the CAPM report, while white Minnesota students tested proficient in English and math at 80 and 63 percent, respectively, API students with refugee experience tested at 50 and 40 percent. Those of Lao, Hmong, Cambodian and Burmese descent tested even lower, with Burmese testing the lowest of any ethnic or racial student group in the state — less than 17 percent were proficient in reading or math.

CAPM Executive Director Sia Her said they discovered these disparities by looking at the 2011 MCA test scores and breaking them up by language spoken at home, ethnicity, income level, English proficiency and mobility.

The results show exactly why they’ve been advocating for Minnesota to disaggregate their data for years, Her said. “There is a different reality on the ground.”

Changing demographics shift focus

Since 2000, Minnesota’s Asian population has grown from around 130,000 to over 250,000, according to U.S. Census data.

CAAL Executive Director Bo Thao-Urabe said that makes Asian Minnesotans one of the fastest growing populations in the state, and people are starting to notice. “People … see it in their schools, they see it in their workplaces,” she said.

State Sen. Susan Kent
State Sen. Susan Kent

Thao-Urabe has been fighting for the state to disaggregate its data for over a decade, she said, but only now has there been any traction on the subject among policymakers. She thinks that’s because Minnesota’s growing Asian population is finally shifting the focus.

One of those policymakers, Sen. Susan Kent, said the bill is the result of “a natural evolution.” Over the last few decades, Minnesota has changed dramatically, she said, and it has turned the state into a melting pot of Asian Americans and other emerging immigrant populations.

“You can have a fifth generation Asian American student who comes from a very strong English background … and they’re in the same category as an Asian student who moved over here from a refugee situation just a couple years ago and doesn’t speak much English,” Kent said.

The law won’t only help Minnesota’s Asian population, she said, but may also reveal other groups who are currently struggling but don’t show up in the data. As long as struggling groups exist unnoticed, Kent said, the achievement gap will persist. “And that’s the point,” she said. “The achievement gap right now is only being addressed in very broad terms because it’s using these broad [data] averages.”

Who’s included?

Not every Asian Minnesotan group pushing for disaggregated data supported the bill as it was passed. CAPM’s Sia Her testified against the bill because she believes it will exclude several prominent Asian communities in the state that simply didn’t have the numbers to meet the population threshold —groups that include the Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Malaysian and Sri Lankan communities.

“If this is about all kids counting, how do we justify that we’re leaving out one of our most vulnerable, emerging communities?” she asked.

Parmananda Khatiwoda, of the Bhutanese Community Organization of Minnesota, said that if they’re not included in the disaggregation bill, he’s afraid they’ll have to wait three more years with inadequate funding before the state begins collecting data on them for the next decennial census.

MDE Assistant Commissioner Kevin McHenry said they’ve heard the concerns of the advocates and they’re doing what they can to hash out a more accurate method to set the 1,000 threshold. “We have reached out to the state demographer’s office to try to get a better sense of how many new student groups that would be to properly meet the legislation,” McHenry said.

Joshua Crosson from MinnCan, another advocacy group who pushed for the bill, said while the legislation had its flaws, the law represents a big improvement in the status quo. “It’s not going to be a perfect system,” he said. “But it’s significantly better than what we have right now.”

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Comments (1)

Step In The Right Direction

This is an important step in the right direction. If more adequate funding follows it could lead to real progress. That would be an indication that lawmakers recognize it takes significantly more money to educate some students than others. Students who come here from different countries vary a great deal in their past education experiences. If they are raised in rural or mountainous areas and have not had access to schooling even in their own language they will be far behind their peers - even those who are from the same country (who may have come from more urban areas where schools were available).

It would also be helpful to use testing data on those from the smaller Asian populations to access more funding. If they start far behind their peers the schools will need additional staffing and resources to try to get them to achieve at their appropriate grade level. I sympathize with those that wanted a fairer and more comprehensive system of identification but few laws in memory get it completely right the first time.