Asian students have consistently been top scorers on standardized tests.
By Yimu Xue
Asian students are known for their test-taking abilities and school smarts. These academic pressures, however, have instilled a negative tradition as cram schools train students to take standardized tests without teaching them meaningful information. Photo: Flickr.
It was a brisk January morning as I shuffled into line at Irvine Valley College, my local community college. There were a few glum faces I recognized from my high school, deeply wrinkled with worry and cheeks rosy from the cold. Step by step, we all entered a large auditorium-like classroom as volunteers ushered us into seats in a pattern and provided us with pencils and Scantrons.
This was it. This was the time for which we had spent the last two and a half months preparing. Countless Saturday afternoons had been lost to practice slaying the monster that lay in front of me.
A jarring voice over the PA system jolted some weary students alert: “Open your test booklets, and begin. You have 25 minutes for this first section.”
Cram schools have become increasingly popular in the United States in the Asian Pacific American community. These after-school and supplemental educational programs structured on the concept that practice makes perfect have become standard amongst students whose parents insist them on attending. Asian students attend cram schools almost as if it is second nature, especially during high school with important tests like the SAT and ACT.
Like America, in Asia it is common practice to send children after-school to an extra-curricular activity. Children take art lessons, practice music, play soccer. However, on top of that, children are expected to attend supplemental educational programs that instill good study habits and ensure their progress in school is up to par and even beyond average standards. It is no wonder that young Asian children are stereotypically depicted as bookish, studious, and quiet – they rarely have time to socialize when they are being inundated with quizzes on English vocabulary.
Many a Tiger Mother have insisted on their children being over-prepared to not only maintain their competitive academic edge in their school but also to compete with the top students in the nation. Some invest thousands upon thousands of dollars every year to ensure that their children are getting the best education outside of what is offered in public schools.
“In a public school setting, our children’s individual needs aren’t being met,” one Asian mother notes. “It’s up to us, as parents, to ensure they have the best education for the best future possible.”
Study habits are drilled into children as early as pre-school as they repeatedly are tested on their times tables and English vocabulary words. Students studying at Kumon (the Kumon Method), the world’s largest after-school math and reading enrichment program, are given the same tests over and over again until they have committed everything to pure muscle memory. Seven times eight equals fifty-six is no longer a mathematical equation – it’s a reflex.
Hoards of students flock to test prep centers and cram schools year-round to prepare for a variety of tests. College preparatory courses are offered along with courses in various subjects.
Cram schools demonstrate a large ethnic divide. Stuveyesant High School, one of New York City’s best public schools that accepts only the top 3.7% of students who take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, has a student body made up of 72% of that 3.7% at their school.
It can be argued that Asian students are better at “being coached” to take tests. This is a false statement – everyone gets what their parents pay for.
When I joined the 2100 club at the Elite Educational Institute to prepare for my SAT in November 2007, my base score was a 2090 – after I took the SAT for the first time, I received a 2150. Most people would be very pleased, but I felt disappointed that I just spent $1500 of my mother’s hard-earned wages to improve a mere 60 points, and only 10 points above the score they had guaranteed me. With devout studying techniques and extreme discipline, I vowed to not waste any more money on something that guaranteed an individualized experience when in fact I was thrown into a bundle of teenagers desperate for an Ivy League acceptance letter.
I ended up with a 2320 (750 Critical Reading, 780 Mathematics, and 790 Writing). I scored a perfect score on the Math Level 2 Subject Test, and well above 700 in all my other subjects. It seems that I have been well trained in my testing techniques.
However, all these standardized tests seem to indicate is who paid the most to prepare themselves the best. Asian students have demonstrated their capabilities in over-preparation – however, we must think about what effect this has on the future of our community. With standards so high and college admissions expecting the top scores coming from Asian students, what will happen to those who do not follow the traditional route and take standardized tests without the preparation that cram schools provide?
Many APA parents are reluctant to let their children pursue majors in the humanities. They claim that the liberal arts are not a worthwhile way to spend four years of time and tuition.
By Jennie Zhang
However, an increasing amount of APA college students are becoming humanities majors, and many face the same struggles: is breaking out of the “Asian” mold and defying their parents’ wishes worth pursuing their passions? Are their parents correct when they say that humanities majors have a severe disadvantage in the job market? USC student Yuan Tao hopes to bring these issues to light with her new club AASHA, which targets APAs in the humanities.
USC seniors Yuan Tao and Alex Norby fasten flyers to ramen packages for an AASHA tabling event. Photo: David Hong.
The traditional and often stereotyped road to success for Asians is paved by the pursuit of the sciences, mathematics, engineering, accounting and other quantitative majors that Asian parents either studied themselves or associate with financial stability.
Many APA students admit defeat early on. If their parents are willing to shell out $50,000 a year for college in order to secure a lifetime of happiness for their children, a rough or boring four years is the least they could do to satisfy their parents’ wishes while ensuring a stable future.
Yuan Tao, founder and president of Asian-Americans in the Humanities and Arts (AASHA), disagrees.
Tao, a senior majoring in English, entered USC through the prestigious Baccalaureate/M.D. Program. As part of this program, Tao was guaranteed acceptance to USC’s Keck School of Medicine after college.
She reluctantly matched the pre-medicine track she was on with a major in the biological sciences.
From her first semester, Tao found that she was much less engaged in her science classes than she was in her Thematic Option (TO) honors course, where she was taught by an esteemed English professor and surrounded by peers with similar literary interests.
Tao attributes her longing to study English to not only the class itself, but also to the void she felt when her class ended. “I had no place to do what I was passionate about,” said Tao.
Her TO classes were rare opportunities, exclusive to her experience at USC, where Tao felt she could connect with other humanities-inclined students.
At first, not many of Tao’s friends or family understood her desires.
She said, “I feel like growing up in an Asian American community makes it hard to meet someone who loves literature because most of us are focused on science, business, and other practical career paths.”
USC cultivates a predominantly pre-professional undergraduate community, with approximately one third of the undergraduate population in the business school. Consequently, the decision to major solely in the humanities often raises some eyebrows, especially amongst those from APA backgrounds.
Despite the disparity in the number of APAs in professional curriculums versus the number of APAs pursuing degrees in the liberal arts, many APAs are starting to see that college is the time to explore their interests.
More students are having experiences similar to Tao’s: leaving sheltered homes with their eyes on a solid pre-professional education and stable career, but discovering their true passions after experiencing engaging college classes and meeting compelling professors.
Many APAs ignore this discovery aspect of the typical American college experience because their cultural norms focus on success rather than enjoyment, even when enjoyment of the humanities can lead to success.
Soon, Tao met a few classmates with similar cultural backgrounds and academic situations. She realized that many APAs were potentially interested in pursuing careers in the humanities, but most were either nervous or felt restricted by their parents.
Tao said, “AASHA creates a safe space for people who are going through challenges in pursuing their passion in the arts and humanities.”
She emphasized that AASHA does not pressure students to study humanities but gives support and information to anyone who needs help in making the decision.
AASHA highlights the skills that liberal arts majors develop in critical and analytical thinking.
“To actually develop your analytical intellect, you have to pursue what fits how your mind analyzes things. That is science for some people, and that’s great for them, but for those who don’t fit in that way, they improve much better from staying true to who they are,” said Tao.
Despite her difficult struggle and the critics in her community, Tao convinced her parents and close friends of why she was so adamant about pursuing her love for literature. They ultimately supported her difficult decision to leave the Baccalaureate/M.D. program and to become an English major.
While this experience was both hard and rewarding, Tao hopes AASHA can help other APA students reach a similar happy ending.