Rhode Island House Passes Act That Would Expose Asian-American Achievement Gap

Southeast Asians have the highest high school dropout rate in the country.
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Southeast Asian-American activists are celebrating a Rhode Island act that could have a huge impact on the underserved students in their community.

Nonprofits and advocacy groups have been praising the state’s All Students Count Act, which passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives on Wednesday. The legislation calls for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to collect data on specific ethnic groups, including members of the Cambodian, Filipino and Vietnamese communities.

Southeast Asian-American organizations, which have been fighting for the legislation for some time, say it will shed a much-needed spotlight on the achievement gap students in their community face.

“Unknown to many, Southeast Asian communities experience some of the same challenges that so many other low-income, immigrant, and communities of color face,” Quyen Dinh, executive director of nonprofit Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, told HuffPost in an email.

While people of Asian descent are often portrayed as the “model minority,” excelling in education, not all Asian ethnic communities experience high degrees of educational attainment.

Southeast Asians have the highest high school dropout rate in the country. Almost 40 percent of Hmong adults, and almost the same percentage of Cambodian adults, lack a high school diploma in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And only 7.5 percent of Hmong, 7.9 percent of Laotians and 9.2 percent of Cambodians in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree.

Many of these educational issues are tied to relatively high rates of poverty and limited English proficiency and literacy, said Chanda Womack, executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education. They’re also a result of the mental health problems in the Southeast Asian community.

Refugees, who have survived conflicts in war-torn countries, make up a large percentage of Southeast Asian immigrants to the U.S. and many are still grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. This continues to affect their children.

“The high percentage of undiagnosed PTSD in our community results in intergenerational trauma for our students,” Womack explained. “Southeast Asian students also experience intergenerational conflict, as their acculturation is not guided by their parents.”

Rhode Island’s act would call on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to break down demographic data on a variety of stats, including educational proficiencies, graduation rates, attendance rates and access to educational resources. Womack said this would enable lawmakers, along with fellow Rhode Island residents, to get a better sense of what the Southeast Asian community’s true needs are.

In the past, students from various Asian subgroups have been lumped together under the “Asian and Pacific Islander” label. Activists say that when information is collected this way, it’s doing a disservice to communities in need. Moreover, it continues to hide the disparities between Southeast Asians and other Asian ethnic groups.

“This outdated data system fails to recognize the diversity of the Asian category, especially when differing historical experiences by ethnic groups have led to different educational outcomes,” Dinh explained.

With the passage of the act, Southeast Asian activists are optimistic that their community will be better heard. What’s more, they also feel that lawmakers elsewhere should follow suit and pass similar legislation to account for the needs of their Southeast Asian constituents.

“The level of public accountability created by this bill is a gold standard that we hope can be replicated not just in other states, but also nationwide,” Dinh concluded.

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