Tag Archives: Asian Americans

Building Narratives

I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.

Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.

They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.

“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”

No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….

Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”

“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”

Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.

“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”

While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:

The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.

“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”

“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”

“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”

David came back with his essay, and I found the line:

My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.

“Where’s that kid?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”

Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”

“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”

“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”

“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”

Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”

I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”

“My discovery of anime music?”

“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”

On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:

My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.

“What’s the heart of this story?”

“Um. The heat?”

“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”

“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”

“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”

“It’s too short.”

“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”

Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.

“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”

“The end? Is it wrong?”

“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”

He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”

I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”

“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”

“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded.

“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”

Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.

“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”

“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”

I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”

“You like big vacations?”

“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.

“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…

“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.

“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”

“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”

“Indians, is this a thing for you?”

“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”

“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.

“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”

“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”

“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”

“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”

“And the adults didn’t stop him?”

“They were in another RV.”

“But they apologized?”

“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”

“Bad idea.”

“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”

“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”

“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”

“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”

Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.

“It sucks, right?”

“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.

“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”

Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud

To continue my thoughts on college admissions and Asians:

Many people, reading of the clear discrimination against Asians, become all righteous, thinking of those poor, hardworking Asians. Come to America, work hard, and look how the system screws them.

But that reaction ignores the stereotype.

The stereotype, delicately put: first and second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans, as well as nationals from these countries, often fail to embody the sterling academic credentials they include with their applications, and do not live up to the expectations these universities have for top tier students.

Less delicately put: They cheat. And when they don’t cheat, they game tests in a way utterly incomprehensible to the Western mind, leading to test scores with absolutely zero link to underlying ability. Or both. Or maybe it’s all cheating, and we just don’t know it. Either way, the resumes are functional fraud.

Is it true for every single recent Chinese, Korean, or Indian immigrant? Of course not. I know far more recent Asian immigrants than most people, a fair number of whom effortlessly exceed their academic records, with style points to boot. That doesn’t make the stereotype any less relevant. Or less accurate, as stereotypes go.

There are two aspects to this story. First is the behavior of recent Asian immigrants who live in America. That part is largely anecdotal, because reporters are, as always, reluctant to be specific about race. Second, the behavior of Asians back in their native countries. Here, reporters are happy to describe behavior in great detail, because hey, it’s not race, it’s culture. Moreover, colleges have done a reasonable amount of research documenting the prevalence of cheating and “cultural differences” in Asian immigrant college students.

This piece will focus on recent Asian immigrants and cheating. I have been working on various aspects of Asians and college admissions for over six weeks now, and tried to figure out the best way to organize the chunks. Nothing ever seemed completely right, and I’ve got some several thousand words in addition to this one that may take me months to organize. I hope at some point to put together a piece on Asian nationals and cheating, but the one that’s hardest of all is the second part of the stereotype, the one that says okay, so they don’t always cheat—maybe—but even if they don’t, their test scores don’t match what we consider reality.

I will include a number of reported stories that back up my own experiences, as well as excerpt from School of Dreams, by Edward Humes, the story of a few years at Whitney High, a selective California public high school that is almost entirely Asian (as early as 1987, it was 45% Asian). Note again that this behavior is of recent Asian immigrants, kids who either came here very young or were born to recent immigrants. Humes’ book specifices this, and the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article also specifies that the troubles are with recent immigrants.

And so, cheating.

Cheating is a big problem in American high schools, and doom and gloom stories like this emphasize that high-achiever cheating is on the rise. Well, Asian immigration is on the rise, too, and Asian schoolkids are a huge percentage of high achieving kids. Is there any correlation, or is it rude to ask?

Teachers will tell you that high achiever cheating has a distinctly demographic tilt, which you can find in the stories if you look for it. Scratch the surface of any cheating story and odds are well above average the school or the class in question is disproportionately Asian. Journalists carefully scrub cheating stories of any racial references—unless it’s rich whites. In fact, it’s obvious that the SAT scandal was first thought to be “white” kids, which is why the reports contained names. Then it turned out they are mostly Iranian Jews, first or second generation immigrant. Oops. Which is not to say that impersonation is the typical cheating profile for Eastern and Southern Asians. (Cheating by high ability black and Hispanic students is virtually unknown, both in my own experience and a complete dearth of reported stories. The major cheating scandals involving black and Hispanic students is done on behalf of the lowest performers, usually by teachers, usually being ordered to do so by administrators.)

Researchers categorize cheating in three ways: impersonation, collaboration, and prior knowledge.

First, and least likely for Asians in this country, is impersonation, the method used by the Great Neck SAT scandal and the Clarence Mumford case. Cheaters need lots of money, an imposter who can guarantee results, and an anonymous setting. The Mumford case was so extensive, I think, because teacher testing is anonymous and a passing score, as opposed to a high score, was the only thing needed. That, coupled with a whole bunch of existing teachers who couldn’t pass the test. While impersonation is common in China and India, the ETS/College Board spot maybe 200 cases of impersonation a year in the US—at least, they only admit to that many. According to this story, impersonation used to be an issue among college athletes, which makes sense (and would therefore involve low-ability blacks more than Asians).

Next formal cheating category is “collaboration”, which means that students engaged in the work—test usually, homework almost always—are getting answers from other students also doing the work at that time. We don’t call this “copying” anymore, because getting answers almost always involves the consent and, well, collaboration of the person who has the answers.

Collaboration stories that hit the news usually involve Advanced Placement tests. “Chaos cheating”, as I call it, is nicely illustrated by the Mills High School story, in which the entire school’s AP scores were invalidated. While the first article only mentions one student with an Asian name, the student site protesting the decision has each student signing in by name, and the names are so Asian it’s funny, making it almost unnecessary to confirm that Mills is 60% Asian. The followup story has a revealing picture , and try playing “spot the white kid” with this video on the story.

Chaos cheating starts with a school screwup. The school doesn’t enforce security, sits the kids too close together, in circles or facing each other, directly against the rules. I know: what the hell does that have to do with the kids? They aren’t arranging this. At best, some kids are taking advantage of something that they had no control over.


From 2008 to 2013, I taught an AP US History survey course at two different SAT academies, for kids from around 20 schools, most of them 50% or higher Asian. I’ve been hearing from my APUSH students about exactly this scenario. I dismissed the first tale, thinking it absurd—any teacher knows how to proctor, particularly at the school in question, which had a long history of AP testing. Then I heard the story several more times from different kids, different schools, different review classes, always involving “Asian” schools or a heavily Asian testing population. I checked it against my white tutoring students, from a wide range of high schools, and the only ones who know of it also went to “Asian” schools. My Asian middle school students don’t know of it. The few Asian students I found who’d never seen it attended majority white or majority Hispanic schools—and they knew exactly what I was talking about, but told me that “wouldn’t fly” at their school.

The kids who know of it tell me some variation of this: the testers rush into the room as chaotically as possible, pull chairs close together, sit next to a buddy, whine like crazy when the proctor tries to impose seating order. The proctor sighs, exhorts them not to cheat, and pretty much turns over control of the class to the students. At that point, the kids can quietly discuss answers, text a buddy for help, and basically “collaborate” in any way needed.

Now, any decent, experienced proctor would never allow this. And yet, the “chaos cheating” stories that make the news all involve schools with a long history of high-achieving students taking all sorts of AP tests. The lax administration simply doesn’t make sense. But several major cheating stories of this nature on the AP have made the news in the past five or six years, in addition to the recent Mills High School story above. Here it is occurring at Skyline High School in Oakland, a majority minority school whose 22% Asian population likely comprises the bulk of the AP testers. Skyline’s cheating was limited to specific students, although it’s clear that the cheating couldn’t have occurred without incompetent or compliant proctors.

Another cheating scandal that involved both chaos cheating and texting occurred in Orange County, in which students were “allowed to talk, consult study aids, send text messages to friends and leave the room in groups during the exam” and we are supposed to believe that this was due to inexperienced proctoring in a high-achieving school in a wealthy district. I originally thought it was a primarily white student body. But back in 2008, Trebuco High freshmen through juniors were about 9% Asian, and CST scores reveal them to be a high achieving bunch. So about 150 Asians were juniors and seniors, figure perhaps a third of the AP testers were Asian. That’s plenty to create a chaos cheating situation. Ten students acknowledged cheating by texting, race omitted.

(AP Stats is a common cheating test. I mentioned this to a colleague, a third generation Japanese American, and he snorted, “Of course. That’s the math test for Asians who aren’t good at math.” and I suspect that this is, in fact, a good bit of the reason.)

The Mills students tried to sue. While the effort failed, the decision includes detailed descriptions of Mills, Skyline, and Trebuco testing procedures. It’s very hard to believe that Mills and Trebuco, in particular, were so blatantly incompetent.

I found one example involving the SAT, with the same seating violations and inattentive proctoring at a private school in Brooklyn, which surely should know better. When I first found Packer Collegiate Institute, I also intended to use it as a counterexample, of a case when chaos cheating involved a primarily white population, since the school is only 7% Asian. And it may–except the population is for K-12, and there’s no way to determine what age the Asians are. Are they all kindergartners? All high schoolers? Please note this article on Packer’s growing profile and resulting identity changes, paying particular attention to the increased competition, increased emphasis on college admissions, and changed atmosphere. The article doesn’t say “Asian student population has increased”, but given the school is in Brooklyn, which has seen a tremendous increase in Asian population, I do wonder what percentage of the testers are Asian.

We move from AP tests to every day classes and those ruthlessly consistent straight As that comprise a good bit of the Asian academic dominance, and there, teachers and students both can tell you all about the cheating. Collaborative cheating also includes splitting up homework assignments and texting answers on in-school tests and quizzes. All but one of the schools mentioned in that story are heavily Asian (Piedmont is not). I wrote part of this article at a pizza parlor in the late afternoon, packed full of students from one of the local high schools (80% Asian), openly “collaborating” on homework in late August. And I don’t mean “what’s the answer to question 9” but “we’re doing the front page, can you guys take the back side?” and then everyone switches answers. When you hear of Asian kids talking about all the hours they spend on homework, take it with a lot of salt. School of Dreams backs up the collaborative cheating on tests and the wasted time on homework.

The third category of cheating is “prior knowledge”—students are aware of the specific content of the test before taking it. Again, prior knowledge cheating occurs in every day classes as a way to get As on tests, as well as national tests. Students take advantage of prior knowledge in school by breaking in or in some other way obtaining the tests ahead of time. Students caught in the widespread cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High had both provided answers for their strong tests and received them for their weak tests—and this NY Magazine article makes it clear that cheating at New York City’s top high school is endemic and common. Notice that none of the schools mention the dominant race of the students involved, but the hints are there and all but one of the example schools are over 40% Asian. The North Carolina school, Panther Creek High School, is only 16% Asian, but it’s in a highly educated area, the students involved were all top-tier, and did you notice the mention of parental pressure? Dead giveaway. Some kids use the TA gig—TA for a teacher, get copies of the tests ahead of time (or in some cases change the grades) and either trade or sell.

Then there’s the national high stakes prior knowledge cheating scandals, in which the parties get the actual test information, sometimes from the Korean hagwons who pay testers to take pictures of the test, sometimes from principal whose brother works at a SAT academy that clearly has a large Asian clientele. (Wait–Asian schools in Plano, Texas? No way. Way: 32% Asian. Yeah, surprised me, too.)

(I’ve been talking about my work for a few months, and a friend just came back from taking her acupuncture board tests, shocked. She noticed all the “Asian testers” (no idea what countries) were disappearing into a large conference room, so she meandered down that way and discovered that they were all in a room with rows of laptops, typing ferociously. They weren’t studying. They were entering the questions for later testers.)

Whitney High School’s admission test was, and probably is, highly vulnerable to prior knowledge cheating. Back in the 90s, a test prep company bought a copy of the custom test from McGraw Hill, who created the test. Then later problems occurred with the essay portion. Cheating was so rampant that Whitney now uses CST scores and an essay—and of course, a private tutoring company, one started by an Asian (Brian Tom), and been around for 30 years (you gotta wonder, at least I do, if it was involved in the earlier shenanigans) is happy to tutor kids on the essay and the CST—that is, the California state tests.

In writing this piece, I have steeped myself in cheating articles, and this discovery of CST tutoring still caught me by surprise. White kids also don’t really care about their low-stakes state test scores, whereas Asian kids can tell me exactly what their last state test results were, because their parents get quite annoyed if they aren’t Advanced in every subject. And for that reason, I can’t dismiss the possibility that Asian kids are cheating on their state tests, too. Given that many state tests are given over a six or eight week period, I very much wonder if the tutoring companies aren’t buying copies or pictures of tests off of willing administrators.

Two actual data points to consider: in my first article, I mentioned the increased number of Asians getting high verbal scores on the SAT, during a period when far more recent Asian immigrants and nationals are taking the test. I find this….unlikely, and the fact that it hasn’t been investigated is pretty stunning. I also find it odd that far fewer Asians take the ACT (69,000 in 2012) than take the SAT (192,500 in the same year), when the ACT is taken by more students. Both are suggestive of cheating patterns—although they may also simply reflect the fact that SAT “academies” are better versed in gaming the SAT.

Go to any Asian school and ask the teachers. Ask the kids. And when the kids complain that gosh, everyone thinks we all cheat, ask them why. I do, and the kids always look shamefaced.

As if this whole story weren’t troubling enough, it seems a great deal of the cheating is facilitated by the schools, which are run primarily by white people. It’s not the kids who are arranging the weak proctors, who fold when the kids protest at changing seats. It’s not the kids who are refusing to expel students who’ve cheated on tests. So why is that happening? (Interestingly, the white male Stuyvesant principal was replaced, as a result of the cheating scandal, by an Asian female principal.)

I wonder about payoffs. Given its prevalence in China, Korea, and India and given the cheating history I’ve just outlined, it’s hard not to wonder if the practice isn’t continuing. The parents certainly aren’t in any hurry to assimilate; they view American kids as negative influences. (and when the Asians in question say “American”, they mean “whites”, as in this pretty horrifying tale of the fraud in Chinese English teaching industry.)

However, there’s also something that I don’t see reported much, but is common knowledge among teachers in Asian schools: many of the parents, who are recent immigrants, are ruthlessly and endlessly demanding. (This story focuses on Japanese parents in their native country, but remember, I’m talking about recent immigrants.) I know teachers who have quit Asian schools because of the 100 or more emails they get daily, demanding that grades be changed reconsidered. I can easily envision a proctor fearing the mountain of crap poured on his head if he held the line and forced kids to change seats, so instead just shrugs and hopes for the best. I’m not excusing it. But I can see it.

So is the cheating enabled by payoffs or fear? Beats me. Is this cheating just as prevalent among high-achieving whites and long-established Asian Americans? Not in my experience, which is not to say that these kids don’t cheat at all. But really rich kids usually have parents who buy their way in, and upper income “American” (and here, I mean all races) kids do not, as a rule, feel the same type of pressure that the recent Asian immigrant kids feel from their parents. Wouldn’t it be cool if reporters actually investigated, though?

As the universities know, these same kids go off to college and cheat some more.

I am not excusing their discrimination. I am attempting to explain it. Some version of this next occurs:

The universities look at the resumes of all Asian kids—recent immigrants, long-established natives, nationals—and know that many of them are fraudulent. They know that many of the kids they accept will not be able to function on their campus, whereas others will be able to get great grades so long as they cheat. They know that many of the students don’t have the inquisitive mind, genuine interest in intellectual pursuits that universities like to see in students (or pretend they do). But the universities want the great, if often fraudulent, stats to puff up their numbers for the rankings systems, to offset the athlete, the legacies (for privates), and the Kashawn Campbells (for publics). And so they try to minimize it, while still getting what they want—an improved profile, out of state fees for four years, instead of just one, while not overloading the campus with too many Asians.

That’s disgusting. But if that’s not bad enough—and it is—here’s the thing: the cheating I describe perpetuates two frauds. The first, of course, benefits the cheaters and their schools at both high school and university level. But the second perpetuates a much larger misconception: People really believe that our top high school students are taking ten-twelve AP courses during their high school year, maintaining 4.5 GPAs, and have the underlying knowledge one would expect from such study. But this almost certainly isn’t true. And once you understand the reality, it’s hard not to wonder about all the “weeding out courses” in organic chemistry and other brutal STEM college courses, the ones that Americans are abandoning in large numbers. The willingness to accept the cheating, to slap it on the wrist if that, is leading to lies that convince a lot of American kids that they aren’t smart enough for tough courses because they don’t cheat and aren’t aware that others are.

No one is going to pay any attention to this problem. Usually, Republicans/conservatives are willing to point out that supposedly racist beliefs are founded in valid stereotypes, and I find it pretty fascinating that they are practically gleeful about the discrimination against Asians, not because they approve, but because of what they see it revealing about Asian superiority, chortling at the need for “affirmative action for whites”, practically spiking the ball in their declarations that whites just aren’t up for the task of competing in a global market. I was originally confused, but have concluded that any reason to razz white liberals for racism is too good to be missed. Plus, reformers jump on the bandwagon because they think the news will help them convince whites that American schools suck. Others, like Charles Murray, are simply bothered by the lack of consistent standards. Liberals just ignore the news.

But at base, the Asian discrimination and the Kashawn Campbell story both reveal that our college admissions system is corrupt, that they are using students to build the metrics they want, rather than finding the students they want. I don’t know what to do about it. Fortunately, though, I just set out to explain why the discrimination happens, not offer any answers.

[Note: Given the comments of pseudoerasmus below, I want to be really clear: I am asserting that the stereotype of recent Asian immigrants exists, and I am reasonably sure the stereotype is why universities are discriminating against Asians. I also think the stereotype is accurate but not absolute. People who want me to prove the stereotype are out of luck. I’m just the messenger with an opinion. I’ve said the discrimination is wrong, regardless of the stereotype. That’s not just a bunch of words.]

College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences

The Big Reveal on Cal’s holistic admissions process created much fuss, most of it on behalf of Asians who are clearly the victims of discriminatory behavior.

I’m fussed, too. But most people don’t completely understand how this “problem” came about, and why the UC and other universities are discriminating against Asians. It’s not so much “affirmative action for whites” as it is unintended consequences of being forbidden to use affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics.

The GPA Demographic Footprint

In November of 1996, the UC system was told by the people of California that it was not allowed to consider race in admissions anymore. The UC system, like all universities in this country, wasn’t about to listen to the rabble. So, as Saul Geiser writes, the system went looking for a reason to reduce the weight given test scores.

Such differences in the demographic footprint of HSGPA and standardized tests are of obvious importance for expanding access and equity in college admissions, especially at those institutions where affirmative action has been curtailed or ended. … at those institutions where affirmative action has been challenged or eliminated, admissions officers have been forced to reevaluate the role of standardized tests as selection criteria.

The result has been a de-emphasis of standardized tests as admissions criteria at some institutions.
UC introduced “comprehensive review,” an admissions policy that more systematically took into account the impact of socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and family income, on students’ test scores and related indicators of academic achievement. [note: this is the process described in the NY Times article]. UC also revised its Eligibility Index, a numerical scale which sets minimum HSGPA and test-score requirements for admission to the UC system; the revised index gave roughly three-quarters of the weight to HSGPA and the remainder to standardized tests. … Under this policy [of Eligibility in the Local Context], which also took effect in 2001, students’ class rank within high school was determined solely on the basis of their HSGPA in college preparatory coursework, so that the effect of this policy, too, was to diminish the role of standardized tests in UC admissions.

So de-emphasize those evil, racist tests that traditionally represent, in the typical progressive’s mind, a means of reinforcing the institutionalized hegemony of the white man’s values. Grades, in contrast, reflected the school’s values, the school’s priorities. So majority URM schools, both charters and inner city, can put whatever grades they like on classes that can be called whatever they want. UC officials made the change, along with Eligibility in the Local Context, so that majority URM schools could lie about their students’ academic abilities properly reflect the students’ diligence and abilities in subjects simply not valued by the institutional racists at the College Board.

The problem is, alas, that UC admissions made changes to their policy based on the “demographic footprint” of tests, but they forgot about the demographic footprint of grades.

Namely: Asians, particularly recent immigrant Asians, kill whites on grades. The test score advantage is getting (suspiciously) worse, but the grade advantage is huge.

That wasn’t part of the plan. Look, universities know the game as well as anyone: grades are a fraud. That’s why, until relatively recently, all universities weighted test scores as high or higher than grades.

If high school grades were objectively accurate, why does the University of California have an entry level writing requirement?—and why is that writing requirement either a test or a college level course? (And I have my own doubts of college level courses, but more on that later.) Why is remediation a huge issue in state colleges? If high school grades meant anything, schools could just accept students with high grades and hey, presto. Problem solved.

But Saul Geiser is a good researcher, and his study finds that HSGPA is as good or better a predictor of freshman GPA as test scores. Sure. But that brings up another point: Freshman GPA is pretty worthless, too. It’s a metric that goes back to a time when everyone took the same classes. It’s ancient. It predates the growing disconnect between grades and ability.

I’d go further and argue that in total, college GPA is worthless for much the same reasons that high school GPA is. We hear constant stories about grade inflation at elite schools, while public universities are under tremendous pressure to pass as many wholly unqualified blacks and Hispanics as they can, given the huge number that can’t even get past the remedial classes. How can grade point average mean anything in a world that requires some students to pass calculus and while others only take remedial math (which they can skip if they got an SAT score of 600+)?

If college grades were objectively accurate, the “mismatch theory“, for better or worse, couldn’t even be conceived of. If an A at Harvard is the same as an A at Berkeley which is the same as an A at Florida State, then lower ability students couldn’t get higher GPAs at Florida State and Richard Sanders shouldn’t be pushing his mismatch theory. Besides, what do you suppose the renewed push for a college exit exam is about? And in a world where we did require an exit exam, what would be the best predictor of passing rates—college grades or incoming SAT scores? Everyone knows that answer: unless the exit exam was rigged, we’d find that passing rates were best predicted by SAT scores, which would show a distressing, racially uneven, distribution.

I understand that GPAs are a useful metric because the people who use them filter the data through context—race, school, major, and so on. That’s fine, but not when you have the University of California claiming that HSGPA predicts four-year college outcomes when the university in questions sending easily half of its URM admits into remediation classes.

UC knows this. The whole GPA thing is just cover. What did a little lie matter, if it allowed them to bring in more blacks and Hispanics and thwart the will of California voters? The only people hurt would be the kids who didn’t get 4.0s.

Except that turned out to be a whole hell of a lot of kids with really good SAT scores, a whole lot of them white. So let’s look at four UC campuses:

Campus Ranking 3.75+ GPA Non-Res SATR SATM SATW600
% 600+ % 700+ % 600+ % 700+ % 600+ % 700+
Berkeley 1 79 540 38 36 28 56 34 46
San Diego 3 86 1530 42 15 41 42 46 22
Santa Barbara 5 75 228 41 13 47 24 44 17
Santa Cruz 7 33 16 26 6 31 7 24 7

The reality of demographic footprints being what they are, the kids represented by these numbers are almost exclusively white or Asian. Any black or Hispanic getting scores above 600 are usually going to a higher ranked private school. Keep in mind that these stats are leaving out UCLA, Irvine, and Davis, technically ranked second, fourth, and sixth, although the difference between UCSB, Irvine, and Davis metrics are primarily in the demographics.

In other words, a hell of a lot of kids are getting 2000+ SAT scores who aren’t getting into the top 3 schools, while a whole bunch of kids with 1800-2000 scores are. And the difference, for the most part, is grades. In the days before California banned affirmative action, the UCs weighted grades and test scores much closer to evenly—a 3.8 GPA with excellent test scores and a demanding schedule could easily get into Cal or UCLA. No more.

So the GPA edge led to unanticipated consequences and a huge advantage for Asians. But that was just one of the problems.

Changing the SAT

The UC system wasn’t content with just devaluing test scores, so they tried another change that had terrible blowback, again in the Asian category. First, in 2002, Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT and a greater use of the SAT Subject tests. By 2005, the SAT had been completely revamped, the College Board having clearly understood the hint.

While I can’t be certain, I think the original changes were intended to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics eligible by making the test burden lighter. At this point, the UC doesn’t appear to have been thinking about Asian overrepresentation. I’m not sure this was caused by anything other than Atkinson’s pet fancy, which is sad, given the consequences—which have gone well beyond Caliornia.

I haven’t been a fan of the new SAT. My sense has always been that it became much easier, and more amenable to swotters. But not until I worked on this piece did I realize how much easier, and how much more apparently coachable it is, particularly for those who take hundreds of hours of test prep. The College Board releases percentile ranks by race and ethnicity, but I can’t find the original files for anything before 2005. (If anyone can, then you’re a hell of a googler and send them my way.)

However, I found a book that cites exactly the file I want.


So in 1995, 14% of Asians, 5.8% of whites, and .6% of blacks scored over 700 in math, which means that the percentile for 700 was 86%, 94%, and 99%. In 2010 (confirm here), those percentiles were 77%, 94%, and 1%.

Only Asians got a lot smarter? Weird. Not impossible. A lot more Chinese and Koreans are taking the test. Not my pick as an explanation, though.

In 1995, the verbal percentile ranks for 700 were (I think) 98.2% Asian, 98.7% for whites, and 99+% for blacks. While this article doesn’t mention it, the 2010 rankings show that the corresponding 700 percentile rankings are now 92%, 94%, and 99%.

Have whites and Asians have gotten a lot smarter in verbal? No. If you won’t take my word for it, check out GRE scores during that time, which was very similar to the 1995 SAT throughout the 90s and before and after, did not see a corresponding increase in scores.

Or–my pick–the reading test has gotten a lot easier, which I’ve been telling to anyone who will listen, and, in my opinion, it’s gotten easier in a way that allows it to be coached more effectively. And the coaching has become more effective over time. Let’s look at all the data together, with a couple more years from the new SAT:

Year Math 700 %ile Verbal 700 %ile
Asians Whites Asians Whites
1995 86 94 98 99
2006 81 94 93 95
2010 77 94 92 94
2012 75 93 91 94

(Cite for 2006, 2012).

Weird. SAT scores are generally pretty stable. Until I started researching this, I had no idea that the Asian increase was that dramatic, and it is part of a series of discoveries over past year making me wonder if the big gap between Asian and white test prep use (and time spent in test prep) is doing more than just giving Asians a slight edge. This piece is long enough without bringing up the ACT, but I believe that a 700 M corresponds to a 32—or it used to, anyway—and notice that a 32 is only 85%ile for Asians. I have been working on these two essays for ten days or so, and I haven’t yet been able to find ACT percentiles by race over the past ten years or so. Reading and English appear to be roughly the same. However, almost three times as many Asians take the SAT as take the ACT.

One other thing to keep in mind—the number of native Chinese and Koreans taking the test has exploded. Are they fluent in English? Ask any university freshman at an elite school with a Chinese or Korean grad student instructor. So by any stretch, the Asian mean should have been dropping slightly, shouldn’t it? Which means either Asian Americans have gotten phenomenally better, the Chinese/Korean nationals are also getting high Verbal SAT scores, or….what? What explains this jump?

Whites had increased scores in reading, which I believe supports my contention that the 2005 changes were easier. Why did white math scores stay stable? That’s part of a longer post that’s all intuition on my part. Suffice it to say that the SAT math section is both shorter and easier. This helps people with high attention to detail who aren’t as intuitively strong in math. (yes, I know, the SAT supposedly tests higher math since 2005. Too long for this post, but I would disagree.) However, I do understand there could be other factors at work.

I’ll write more about various things that might be the cause of the extremely strange boost in Asian math and verbal scores in the next post, but for now, let’s leave it at this: UC had a big problem. The changes they had hoped might improve scores for blacks and Hispanics (my interpretation) had instead led to unimaginable increases in high Asian scores in the SAT.

More Subject Tests! No, wait. No Subject Tests!

The College Board obligingly did UC’s bidding in making the test easier (my read), but UC continued to follow Atkinson’s directive by requiring two optional subject tests. Previously, applicants had to take two required tests that were much easier than the others (Writing and Math 1C), and then one optional test. Now, the Writing and Math 1C tests were disallowed, and students had to choose two of the “harder” subject tests to take. This requirement handed Asians an enormous advantage over whites. To see why, just check out the percentile rankings of the subject tests—but before you do, close your eyes and stereotype like mad. What subject tests do you think Asians are more likely to take? Okay, now look. Get a load of those Chinese and Korean tests! Roughly half of all takers get an 800–and check out how many of the testers are native speakers. My goodness gracious.

Notice, too, the skew on the Math 2c test. I’ve tutored students in both the Math 2c and English Lit tests for around a decade. It is far easier to prep students for the Math 2c than it is the English Literature test. The test is considerably more difficult as well, because high schools directly cover the math subject matter, but don’t cover the English Lit subject matter, which relies far more on, dare I say, innate literary analysis skills.

In general, subject tests aren’t subjected (hahahaha) to the same scrutiny as the SAT. It’s well known, for example, that the score distributions are wacky, and that in certain tests–Physics, I’m looking at you–the lowest score is higher than the usual 200. I’m not a psychometrician, but I’d love to have someone make the College Board explain this document. Why, if more people finish the English test and get the same amount right, are the scores so much lower? Why, given the much higher accuracy rate of the Korean and Chinese listening tests, aren’t the tests made more difficult? But I digress.

And so, just a decade after Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT as an admissions tool and complete reliance on the Subject tests, UC does a complete 180, ending the use of subject tests in admissions. Asians knew instantly this was All About Them, and there was little attempt to deny it:

It was also noted that white students seem to be the winners under the new guarantee; this should be of concern to Council. BOARS Chair Rashid acknowledged that the percentage of white students does indeed go up and the percentage of Asian students goes down. The reason for this is that Asian students seem to be very good at figuring out the technical requirements of UC eligibility. If the subject exam is removed, even more white and Asian students meet the requirements of eligibility. Political perception is another concern. This proposal should also not be viewed as the ultimate solution to diversity. It was also noted that the numbers of females goes up under either scenario.

(emphasis mine.)

Please note that bolded comment. They aren’t saying drats, Asians are smarter. Or drats, we need diversity.

Read the rest of the memo to see the various hoops they jumped through in order to get this cover.

Back where it all started
You know what would have been much easier? Require four Subject tests: English Lit, Math 2c, American History, and a Science. Asians would still do well, but it would have been harder. Dump the SAT, dump or devalue grades. If nothing else, we’d be giving smart kids of all races a chance to show their stuff purely through test scores, imperfect as they may be, rather than the vagaries of teacher assessment.

But that gets UC right back to the problem it started with, the reason it emphasized GPA over test scores in the first place, the problem that it created just to give them a cover story for ignoring the will of the California voters (and, eventually, the constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court). A test-score only admissions process would eliminate almost all blacks and Hispanics from consideration. The problem: every attempt to bring in more blacks and Hispanics leads to more Asians.

Problem? Why is it a problem? Shouldn’t the universities just let the chips fall where they may? If the schools are overwhelmingly Asian, so what?

Well, for starters, relying exclusively on grades leads to Kashawn Campbell at the low end—hell, Kashawn’s story singlehandedly reveals the need for test scores, the fraudulence of high school grades, and the sketchy nature of college grades in one neat little package.

But more importantly, a huge number of the Asians admitted are either nationals or first and second generation Chinese, Koreans, and Indians.

None of what I’ve written or will write is intended in any way to rationalize the discrimination against Asians. Quite the contrary. Any fair admissions process would lead to overrepresentation of Asians. But I hope to persuade readers that college admissions in its current form, in both private and public schools, is so corrupt that getting outraged about discrimination for or against any one demographic is pointless. Any outrage you find is counterbalanced by another, and no, it’s not as if it all works out.