I just finished my AP US History survey course, and a glorious time it was. But I will save the specifics of my three to four hour lectures, and whether or not this is a good way to teach history for another post. I will also, hopefully, weigh in some time on what value add I think I bring to history. (If you’re curious, in public school I taught history of Elizabethan theater and a truly awesome 50s science fiction film course, in which students were to analyze the movie’s foreign policy approach by Walter Russell Mead’s paradigm.)
I always end my AP class by discussing the students’ course selections for next year. APUSH is a junior course, and I have about ten kids in this particular class, and the conversation is always the same.
“What are you taking?”
“Calc BC, AP Physics C, AP Bio, AP Gov.”
“AP Chem, AP Stats, AP Psych,…”
“So you’ve already taken BC?”
“Yeah, just took the test. Piece of cake. I’m taking intro to MVC.”
“What about AP English?”
All the heads shake. “God, no. Way too hard.”
One kid says “I’m taking AP Gov, I heard it’s easy.”
“I’m taking Macro Econ, one of our teachers has all the info you need to pass the tests.”
I laugh. “Jesus. Embrace the stereotype.”
They all get it and laugh, shamefacedly.
“Who’s taking AP English this year?” Two hands rose. “AP English next year?” No hands.
“So here’s what I don’t understand. You are all trying to get into college, and the reason you are taking these tough classes is to make yourself look good for colleges.”
“And I see only Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans in front of me, all either FOB or citizens with parents who lived most of their lives in China, Korea, or India. Moreover, as I imagine you’ve heard, and certainly your parents have heard, universities often engage in some form of discrimination against Asians.”
“Wow,” one of the students laugh-gasped. “I never thought I’d hear an American admit that.”
“An American, or a white person?”
“They aren’t the same?”
“You born here?” Pause, as I see that datapoint register. Yes. She’s an American. (We’ll leave aside the fact that they don’t consider blacks and Hispanics American, either. I’ve written about this before; it’s still weird to see.)
“Anyway. All of you avoid classes that involve reading literature or written analysis because they would be too difficult.”
“So the stereotype is all wrong.”
“What, the stereotype that says we’re good at science and math?”
“No, the stereotype that says you work hard, that you take on challenges.”
I smiled, too. “Look, there’s a serious point here. You’re a college admissions officer, reading through approximately 16 billion Asian resumes that all read exactly the same: 4.2 GPA, BC calculus as a sophomore ( with the occasional underachiever waiting until junior year), several AP science courses, APUSH for those of you who can string a sentence together, AP Chinese for those of you lucky enough to win the language lottery, and so on. What’s going to stand out? Not one more STEM course.”
“Yeah, but I hate reading.”
“You think the universities don’t know that? Oh, look, one more Asian kid who’s a machine at math and can memorize all the facts in AP Bio but uses Cliff notes for Hamlet. College admissions is a numbers game anyway, and I’m not pretending anything is going to make a huge difference,, but…”
“My dad says colleges are reducing Asians born here…American Asians [score!] for Chinese and Koreans.”
“Your dad’s right. So given all the work you’re putting in clearly to just get that last inch of consideration, may I suggest that the path to differentiation lies in showing the admissions reviewer that you take on challenges in all subjects, as opposed to taking classes you know you’ll get an A in.”
I was going to just post this little anecdote, but then I got to wondering just how prevalent the behavior is—it is exclusive to my little corner of the country, or are the recent Asian immigrants showing up in national data?
One of the problems with AP data is that you simply can’t make too many assumptions. For example, much has been written about the fact that the mode AP score for blacks is 1. Not only do most blacks fail the AP test, people wail, but they fail it completely! Twice as many blacks get a failing score as get a passing score! Our teachers are failing black children!
Yeah, no. The black AP population is a combination of at least three different groups. First, the group of genuinely qualified, academically prepared black students. Small group, I know, but each year hundreds of African American students take and pass the BC Calculus test, many with a score of 5 (however, 1 is still the mode for BC Calc). Second, the group of average or higher ability blacks with relatively little interest in academic success, who have nonetheless been put in AP classes by desperate suburban school officians who are under fire from the feds for their “opportunity gap” numbers. These are kids who could, with good teaching, achieve a respectable “3” on a number of tests, and probably do.
The problem, alas, is that a teacher can focus on getting middle achievers over the hump, or on challenging a bunch of smart kids. Can’t do both in the same room, not easily and probably not at all. Thus bringing in more marginal black students and coaxing them to a three occasionally has a depressing effect on suburban AP scores, as the top white kids aren’t being taught at the top of their ability. But I digress.
The third group, and it’s huge, are low income urban and charter schools gaming the GPA and Jay Mathews Challenge Index. These are kids who are barely literate, often aren’t even taught the course material, but boy, by golly if they get the butts in the seats they’ll show up on Jay’s list somewhere. All at taxpayer expense.
While the AP tests results disaggregate Mexicans and Puerto Ricans from the rest of Hispanics, Mexican performance has the same conflation of three groups as black results do, and are equally useless. The Hispanic mode score is also one.
Asian scores aren’t disaggregated, but the Big Three (Chinese, Koreans, and Indians) dominate.
So are Asians showing a preference for science and math over the humanities AP tests?
AP testing populations by race–mostly. It would have been a huge hassle to add up all the URM categories, so I just subtracted whites and Asians from the total. So “Decline to state” is categorized as a URM, when it’s probably mostly white. I checked a couple values, it wasn’t a big difference. These are the top 20 tests by popularity, in order from left to right1.
The visual display is useful—look for big green, little blue, or a relatively high number of URMs, fewer Asians. See? Asians live the stereotype. Don’t assume that blacks and Hispanics are drawn to the Humanities courses—it’s just easier for schools to shove unprepared kids into English, Geography, and History classes than it is to science and math courses. Fewer prerequisites.
Here’s the same data in table form. I added one column, Asians as a percentage of the Asian/white total, to clear away the URM noise. Then I highlighted the tests for each column that were more than one average deviation away from the mean, both higher and lower–I don’t know from stats (irony alert), but that seemed a better measure of central tendency than standard deviation. I bolded any values that were more than two average deviations away from mean.
Whites are the most tightly clustered, URMs next. Asians tilt strongly towards and against.
There’s a lot more to explore here, and I hope to do that soon. But for now, I wanted to stay focused on Asian vs. white preferences. So I next compared the top 20 Asian test preferences to those of whites. (Actually, I did 22 for Asians because I thought #22 was revealing.)
AP totals include many multiple testers, so I took the number of testers for any given test as a percentage of the total for that race. This is not a perfect measure, for obvious reasons. Or maybe not so obvious. Say, for example, that an entirely different group of Asians take the English Lit test than take the Calc AB test, but the white students have a significant overlap. In that case, the percentage of testers would be saying something entirely different about each group than if both Asians and whites had overlapping testers.
However, in either case, it would be revealing. If more whites than Asians took both math and English tests, or if one group of Asians took math tests and another group took English (or the same case of whites), the percentages are still showing a preference. I think. I’m sure there’s a way to describe this more technically, but it’s late, the school year’s almost over, so put the correct text in comments and I’ll change it.
And here it is graphically, ranked again by test popularity. The blue and green columns are the percentage of white or Asian testers taking that test. The graph above was percent of each test population that was white/Asian/URM. These columns show the percent of white or Asian population taking that particular test (the blue column “% of total” in the tables immediately above). The line graph is the percent of each group that scored a 5 on that test.
(You notice something weird? Spanish is the tenth most popular test–but it barely makes the top 20 for either whites or Asians. How could that be? Who on earth is taking all those Spanish tests?)
So again, I want to write more about these results but I thought I’d put them out there and let people chew on them. Here’s a few preliminary observations:
- Whites appear to be the utility players, good in a number of subjects and not expressing huge preferences. They are stretching more into STEM than Asians stretch into writing.
- Asians appear to be avoiding writing-intensive tests relative to whites, no matter how you interpret the data.
- Asians tend to choose tests that are more likely to yield high scores, and avoid tests that give out fewer 5s. Until recently, AP Bio doled out 5 scores like candy; they clearly changed scoring in some significant way this year (without announcing it, I guess). Environmental Science, which has a deservedly crappy rep, is actually pretty hard to get a high score on, so Asians avoid.
- The real difference between Asians and whites in both preferences and scores is in the science tests, not math. Asians have higher scores in all tests—and while that’s probably a reflection of cognitive ability, you really can’t understand the difference in preparation and grinding until you see it—but the real gaps are in the sciences. AP Science courses are, in my opinion, pretty horrible to begin with. Yes. It’s the subject I don’t teach. Bias alert.
TL, DR: Asians across the land reflect the same biases. They may or may not be working hard, but they appear to be avoiding subjects that are more difficult for them, and don’t yield as high a score. This may also be why they avoid the ACT. Or not.
More on this later. Let me know what you think and of course, point out any errors.
1I actually did this work from the bottom up. So in the first chart, which was actually the last one I did, there are only 19 tests. Guess which one I left off, and why. The other charts all have 20 tests.