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More detailed student data seen as key to narrowing the achievement gap

In many respects, Minnesota’s categorization of students is an overly simplified system that blurs the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

Weaver Elementary School, in Maplewood, serves a student body that's roughly 38 percent Asian.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Ever wonder how Minnesota’s Somali-American students are performing compared to their African-American classmates? Or how Chinese-American students are faring academically compared to their Laotian or Hmong peers?

Those looking for a more nuanced snapshot of the persistent achievement gaps won’t find this sort of data through the Minnesota Department of Education or in district reports.

That’s because, in Minnesota, students are categorized under five generic racial or ethnic umbrellas: Native American, African American, Asian American, Hispanic American and White American.

In many respects, it’s an overly simplified system that blurs the diverse needs of an increasingly diverse student body. For instance, current data tell us Asian-American and Pacific Islander students in Minnesota are falling behind their classmates and their peers in other states.

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Curious to see if certain subsets of AAPI students were struggling more than others, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and the Minnesota Department of Education partnered in 2012 to break this racial category into specific ethnic groups, as determined by students’ self-reported primary home language.

While this method of identifying students’ ethnicities isn’t perfect — since the home language students report doesn’t always align with their ethnicity  — the sampling showed there was a wide range of MCA II reading proficiency levels within the AAPI category in 2011.

They found that South Asian, Chinese and Vietnamese students were outperforming their Asian peers, while Burmese and Hmong students were lagging the furthest behind.

These findings were highlighted in a report released by MinnCAN Wednesday. Using anecdotal evidence captured at three area schools serving predominantly Hmong and Vietnamese students, the report takes a closer look at culturally specific needs and what specialized support measures seem to be working.

Fueled by these findings, MinnCAN will be advocating for more strident disaggregated student data measures at the Capitol this session, along with a number of other local organizations. On the legislative end, Sen. Susan Kent is authoring a bill that would require the Minnesota Department of Education to further disaggregate all student data.

“The concern about our achievement gap is universal, and this is a very effective and relatively straightforward way to evolve what we’re already doing,” she said. “I think nearly all of my colleagues in the Legislature will see this bill as a way that we can strategically support our most underserved communities and celebrate our rich cultural diversity in Minnesota.”

MinnCAN

An incomplete picture

As required by state law, Minnesota schools track student demographic data by using five racial or ethnic categories — to track things like graduation rates and test scores for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment.

On the federal level, education data collection expands to a 7-category system. Students are allowed to self-identify their ethnicity and race. They are also allowed to check more than one category.

Beyond these two streamlined formats, the data landscape becomes rather piecemeal. In order to better capture student diversity, some surveys, like the Minnesota Student Survey, include a unique set of self-reported race categories. And many schools track students’ home language as they enroll.

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But more granular categories like “Somali” or “Karen” don’t always link up neatly with core student data collected using state or federal systems. This is where, arguably, valuable insights into some of the most marginalized student populations are lost.

Fortunately, this gap in student data seems to have finally captured the attention of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

But why has it taken so long to get to this point?

Some speculate state data collection systems haven’t adapted to the demographic shifts that have taken place with the influx of immigrants in recent years simply because it’s a cumbersome process. Others suspect the need for better disaggregated student data is now shaping up as a priority because the urgency of the achievement gap has fully sunk in.

“I think now there’s a greater sensitivity to learning what barriers there might be,” Rep. Sondra Erickson said, noting the Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly called the No Child Left Behind Act) really put this on everyone’s radar. “I’m for any way we can meet the needs of every single learner.”

‘Natural next step’

“I just think it’s a natural next step,” Kent said. “This is something that states around the country are addressing.”

School districts in places like Hawaii, Washington and California have also been active on this front. In fact, the state of California was on the cusp of passing an ethnic disaggregation bill that would require all schools to expand the collection of AAPI data, which already tracks Chinese, Japanese and Indian students, to include categories for Bangladeshi, Hmong, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai, Fijian and Tongan students. Despite bipartisan support, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill last fall.

This puts Minnesota in a position to move the needle forward, Daniel Sellers, MinnCAN’s executive director, said.   

“It’s pretty clear that many people within those ethnicities are having different experiences within our schools,” he said. “Minnesota has a chance to become a national leader on this. I do think this is going to become a trend.”

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Sen. Kent says her bill on disaggregated student data is currently in the final stages of drafting and editing.

Offering a preview, she says it would require the Minnesota Department of Education to disaggregate all student data — including graduation rates and outcomes from standard state assessments — by race, ethnicity, homelessness, disability status, home language, migrant status and foster care status.

“In doing this, we [would now] be in alignment with the new federal ESSA law, and it would allow for cross tabulations,” she said. “It would put us in a position to be able to really track and report and effectively use the data to help our students.”

With added state guidance, she’s hopeful schools and districts can be more uniform in their reporting of student diversity.

“Ultimately, we want the students and families to self-report their information,” she added. “That’s always challenging. We need to provide a framework, and hopefully it will make it easier to capture and then use.”

Potential hurdles

Staff with St. Paul Public Schools’ Research, Evaluation, and Assessment team say they are supportive of the push to further disaggregate student data, which would certainly support their racial equity work.

However, as those who would be tasked with collecting and organizing this information, they raised a number of logistical questions and concerns about adding new identity-based categories.

First, Joe Munnich, the department’s assistant director, noted that while larger ethnic groups like the Hmong, Karen and Somali would certainly show up prominently in new data sets, smaller ethnic groups would still be hard to capture and accurately assess.

From a logistical standpoint, the district would incur costs for modifying its data input system and survey forms. If there’s an expectation that districts will backlog student data, Munnich says the time and effort required to collect this info on students currently in school would place a considerable burden on staff.

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Even if they were able to reach all parents, research analyst Cindy Porter says it’s unlikely all families will respond, whether it be due to a language barrier or a lack of incentive to invest the time in replying.

“That means we are left with the choice of removing [those] students from any analysis, or guessing, or waiting until they graduate and they’re no longer part of our data,” she explained.

If the expectation is set that schools start collecting disaggregated data moving forward, Munnich says the process would be much easier. But schools wouldn’t have enough clean data to assess anytime soon.

Also, as the data categories expand, things inherently become more complicated — a reality those at the decision-making table will need to grapple with if any changes are to be effective.

“Who gets to decide who should be on the list?” he asks. “If you let families just fill in the blanks, we couldn’t actually aggregate that.”

Diving deeper into the data

While any changes in data collection would involve some troubleshooting, advocates say there are plenty of reasons to commit.

National groups like the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center have been framing the need for disaggregated student data as an equity issue.

Executive Director Quyen Dinh says the value of this data is more than being able to glean insights from the numbers. It’s about giving minorities a voice, allowing them to self-determine their identities so they can be seen and recognized in a more authentic way.

Members of the Asian-American community are generally perceived as not being as civically engaged, Dinh explains, but that doesn’t mean their students’ needs are any less urgent.

Tying this back to the value of data in illuminating ethnic subsets that are struggling, she emphasizes the fact that Laotian, Karen, Vietnamese and other subgroups have different needs.

“Until we are able to simply have this visibility, have disaggregated data, these challenges and disparities will continue to grow,” she said.

Likewise, Latino and black students stand to benefit in similar ways.

In 2014, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman pledged support for President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, to make a concerted effort to improve outcomes for and perceptions of young men of color in their communities.

“Broad data doesn’t always tell the full story,” Mayor Hodges said. “I advocated for one of the principles of the Twin Cities My Brother’s Keeper Initiative to be ‘Make boys and young men of color visible in the data’ to ensure that policymakers, funders, and nonprofits will be able to help meet our communities’ specific needs through culturally-responsive strategies.”

Generation NEXT, a task force aimed at closing the achievement gap in Minnesota, has already begun dabbling in data disaggregation and the findings help give initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper a clearer direction.

According to a disaggregated analysis of data from the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, researchers found that Somali youth in St. Paul Public Schools rank higher in areas of commitment to learning, positive identity and social competence than their white and black peers.

“If you want your kid in a classroom with kids who value learning, you want them in a class with Somalis,” R.T Rybak told MinnPost in a prior article where he broke down the findings.

Once educators have a better handle on the ethnic diversity that exists within their schools, they’ll also be able to cross tabulate this data in more meaningful ways.

For instance, right now our data tell us how well black students are doing and how well Hispanic students are doing. But what about those who identify as black-Hispanic male students? This subset may be facing a unique set of challenges in the education system, but there’s currently no way to extract these findings from data sets that only track a student’s primary race, Sen. Kent explained.  

Spotlighting solutions

Perhaps even more valuable, stakeholders say, once we’re able to identify where certain pockets of minority students exist in our education system, we can home in on what supports seem to be working.

At Noble Academy in Brooklyn Park, teachers have started conducting home visits at the start of the school year to help bridge any linguistic and cross-cultural disconnects.

One teacher told MinnCAN that through her home visits, she realized that student with large families at home are up against more distractions when it comes to finding quiet space to complete reading assignments. So she adjusted the types of assignments she sent home with these students, to help set them up for success.

At Weaver Elementary in Maplewood, Principal Pangjua Xiong has implemented a number of best practices with the unique needs of her Asian student popluation, which makes up about 38 percent of the student body at Weaver, in mind. She knows the majority of her Asian students are Hmong, followed by Vienamese. But she says she’d have to sort through student names to know what, exatly, that breakdown looks like.

Weaver Elementary Prinicpal Pangjua Xiong
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Weaver Elementary Prinicpal Pangjua Xiong has implemented a number of best practices with the unique needs of her Hmong and Vietnamese students in mind.

As reported by MinnCAN, she encourage teachers and parents to embrace students’ native language, while also facilitating a growth mindset in both her students and teachers.

Having a clearer understanding of the ethnic demographics of her student population, she says, would equip her team to be even more strategic. 

“As a school, it’d be really useful for us. It’d help us target some of our classroom instruction better,” she said.