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New Book by Prof. Gilda Ochoa Examines Achievement Gap Between Asian American and Latino Students

"Academic Profiling"

Pomona College Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies Gilda Ochoa’s new book, Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, looks closely at one California public high school where the inequalities between Asian American and Latino students—the two fastest-growing demographic groups in the United States—are stark.

Through interviews conducted over 18 months with more than 200 students, teachers, school administrators and parents, Ochoa examines the complexities of these disparities in opportunity, status, treatment and expectations, and unpacks the truths about the “achievement gap” so frequently discussed in media, politics, the marketplace and the classroom. In doing so, she illuminates that the gap—measured almost solely by performance on standardized testing—is due in large part to the divide that the system of placing students on academic tracks creates and reinforces. Honors, advanced placement and International Baccalaureate students are offered support of every kind, while the remaining students are left with what they started with—little to no support, limited access to tools and teaching that will help them succeed, and a system that polices them based on race and class.

The school Ochoa studied was mostly comprised of second- and third-generation Latino Americans and 1.5- to second-generation Asian Americans. Early on in her research, she visited a transitional English class, which had 20 students who were 90% Latino and mostly male. When asked what their high school years have been like, one student hit his hand on his desk and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been in this classroom all four years. It’s almost like it’s the Mexican class.”

Ochoa said the tenor of the conversation immediately changed and the student named the central issue of what was happening at the school. When the students were asked to elaborate, Ochoa said they started blaming themselves. “We’re lazy, we don’t like to study as much, we like to party,” the students said, internalizing and articulating the stereotypes that pervade the debate on Asian American and Latino American achievement and echoing how many school officials themselves talked about the students, Ochoa says.

Then one student whispered, “It’s because of the chinos,” referring to Asian Americans. Another student whispered, “They’ve given up on us. They pay more attention to the honors students than they do us.”

These inequities are entrenched, says Ochoa, who talks about the “cultural deficiency paradigm”—the belief that Asian Americans value education and Latino Americans do not—and how these deeply racist ideas, the lack of discussion about the role of socio-economic class, and the unwillingness to grapple with the ways these factors manifest in the tracking system set some students up for academic success and shortchange many.

One of the remedies Ochoa prescribes is to look at students holistically, rather than make their educational careers begin and end with testing. “We don’t live in a meritocracy. We don’t always live in a democracy. We increasingly live in a testocracy,” Ochoa says. “One’s worth is based on how they perform on standardized tests. It’s all based on how they perform on exams.”

In her book, Ochoa doesn’t call for color-blindness, but instead an end to standardized tests and GPAs as the be-all and end-all of academic success—a type of profiling that is ultimately dehumanizing, whatever educational track a student may have been placed upon.

Ochoa said students’ own observations of the inequalities were revealing:

Until they were told otherwise, Latino students who had bought into the belief that they were inferior students didn’t know that many Asian American students on the advanced educational tracks had paid private tutors. Asian Americans would say, “As an Asian American student, I can come in late and say it’s because my teacher let me out late. A Latino student comes in late after me and is told to go to the front office.”

Even when the stereotypes weren’t true, students said they were still defined in relation to them. Asian Americans would say, “I’m not your typical Asian American student, I’m not good in math,” defining themselves in opposition to the stereotype. But then they’d say their Latino friends expect them to know the answer in math.

Through her extensive research, Ochoa makes it evident that achievement is a gap made ever wider by a performance-based system that has created chasms based on race, class, deeply held assumptions and test scores. By centering students’ experiences, in Academic Profiling Ochoa exposes the many faults in our educational system and the ways that students and our communities are hurt.

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