Asian groups disagree on student classifications

Those of Asian descent in Connecticut are at odds over whether the state should prohibit the disaggregation, or separation, of student data into different ethnic subgroups.

Weili Yu, a Stonington resident with a 7-year-old daughter, is one of many who supports a new bill because she does not want data to be disaggregated.

"America's the only country she would ever call home," Yu said, "and to disaggregate these children at a very young age, I can see my daughter going to school and have herself and her friends be labeled."

Yu is opposed to the breakdown of data, not only as a mother but also as principal of the Southeastern Connecticut Chinese School in East Lyme. She questioned, "How do we teach our children that everybody's actually equal when they have a different label on their back?"

The debate over data disaggregation came to the Capitol on Thursday, as the Joint Committee on Education heard hours of testimony on Senate Bill 359. The measure would prohibit the separation of data by ethnic subgroups unless the data is required under federal law or is "collected uniformly for all ethnic subgroups among the entire student population in the state."

Currently the state breaks down student data only into broader categories, such as white, black, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian, and in some cases also Native American and Pacific Islander. If passed, the bill would not eliminate the collection of student data in those categories.

Opponents of the bill argue that further breaking down the data will help address disparities among subgroups, such as Lao, Cambodian and Hmong.

The ban was proposed in Connecticut following concern among some Asian-Americans over laws passed in other states.

Last June, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed into law the All Students Count Act, requiring education agencies and municipalities collecting demographic information to break down the data into Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian categories.

This disaggregated data is used for reports on "educational proficiencies, graduation rates, attendance rates, and access to educational resources" for elementary and secondary students.

The bill argued that grouping more than 48 ethnicities into the category of "Asian" hides educational inequalities that exist for Asian-American and Pacific Islander groups.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said that because of these laws, Asians in Connecticut have been fearful of an "Asian registry" happening here. Somers is a member of the Education Committee and raised SB 359 along with Republican Sens. Tony Hwang, Art Linares and George Logan.

Somers said there's some concern that there is a lack of equitability across races. For example, the Common Application gives students multiple options for Asian-Americans to describe their "Asian background," but does not do the same for other ethnicities.

She also doesn't like the idea that providing subgroup identification could be mandatory instead of optional.

Somers praised the hundreds who turned out on Thursday for eight hours of testimony.

"They come from countries, in many cases, where it's not typical to speak out against the government," she said, adding, "It was really one of the most interesting public hearings that I've been able to listen to."

There was Bo Du, a Waterford resident who feels that data disaggregation is causing psychological harm to the Chinese and other Asian communities. He feels that if there is separation into subcategories, it should be applied to everyone, but that's not happening.

There was Della Fong, an East Lyme resident who said her 11th-grade daughter, who now lives with her father in California, was "very upset and very confused" by the disaggregation law passed in that state.

There was Michele Guo, a Pfizer research scientist who moved from China to the United States in 1992, and has since had two children. She doesn't want her elementary school-aged daughter to wonder why she's being singled out.

'We need more data, not less'

Many in other Asian subgroups favor disaggregation and strongly oppose this bill.

Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SERAC), said in written testimony that it would prevent the most neglected in the Asian-American community from being seen, heard and served.

She pointed to Census data showing that only 14 percent of Asian-American adults overall lack a high school diploma, but this figure is 34 percent for Cambodians, 30 percent for Hmong and Lao, and 28 percent for Vietnamese.

Dinh called language referring to it as an Asian registry "inflammatory and misleading."

Howard Phengsomphone, executive board director of the Lao Association of Connecticut, cited SERAC statistics showing that only about 13 percent of Lao people get college degrees. He feels that when data is collected under the larger category of "Asians," the problems of Lao remain invisible.

"We need more data, not less data, on small subgroups," Phengsomphone wrote. "The future educational outcomes of the children of recent immigrants and refugees is at stake."

Subira Gordon, executive director of the Connecticut General Assembly's Commission on Equity and Opportunity, said that instead of limiting disaggregation, the bill "should limit the way that data can be used and ensure that no student is discriminated against based on their country of origin."

Even some who are opposed to the bill have pointed to the necessity of ensuring that data does not infringe on students' privacy, especially in situations where a subgroup has only a handful of students, if that.

The Connecticut Association for Human Services said it agrees that disaggregation shouldn't be used to single out certain groups, but rather to provide information on the needs of all subgroups in Connecticut.

e.moser@theday.com

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