RALEIGH—Why are Asian-American students motivated to achieve? They have been portrayed as overachievers, especially in fields like math and science. In 2002, Asian students as a subgroup in North Carolina scored below their 2001 SAT level, moving down from 1031 to 1025. This score is still well above the state average for the year of 998, and five points above the national average. White students and Asian students in the state are the only groups that typically top the national average on the SAT.

Popular mythology holds that family and cultural values drive Asian/Pacific American students to succeed. Based on the belief that Asian children are taught to have greater respect for education and teachers, observers have tried to explain the upward mobility of Asians in the United States in terms of values and work ethic.

A new look at what drives the success of these students offers some perspective on the relative success of Asian-American students in the United States.

In “Social Mobility and the Educational Choices of Asian Americans,” Yu Xie at the University of Michigan, and Kimberly Goyette at Temple University examined occupational choices, expected college participation and choice of major, occupational goals, and college enrollment and graduation.

Their findings indicate that the barriers to success are lowest, and the rewards to academic achievement highest, in academic disciplines and professions grounded in math and science. As relatively unconnected newcomers, these are the paths that offer the most potential for social and financial advancement.

Asian students represented only 2 percent of the state’s public school population in 2002, but made up almost 5 percent of the students taking Advanced Placement exams, a total of 1,147 students. Colleges consider advanced placement for students scoring a three or higher on their AP’s. Among Asian students, 57 percent achieved a three or better in North Carolina. Nationally, 64 percent of Asian students reached that mark. By comparison, white students attempting the AP scored threes 60.5 percent of the time in North Carolina. For blacks the figure was 26.8 percent, and for American Indians 45.1 percent.

Although Asian students represent a numerical minority of students in the state, they are not usually included in the North Carolina calculation of the white-minority achievement gap. The reason seems to be that performance on end-of-grade and standardized tests for Asians is not typical of other numerical minorities. When North Carolina measured the white-minority achievement gap on its end-of-grade tests without Asian student scores, the gap was 26.8 points. Including them decreased the gap to 25.2 points.

Slightly less upbeat statistics emerged from the third- to eighth-grade North Carolina reading tests. Fewer Asian students moved out of the lowest reading proficiency level, Level I, in 2002. But a greater number advanced from levels II and III, the Department of Public Instruction reports.

In mathematics, more than 91 percent of Asian students placed in the highest level, Level IV. Mathematics achievement levels are almost identical for Asian-American male students and female students.

Many studies exist to document the fact that Asian-American students excel on math tests, often scoring higher than their white counterparts. They are as likely or more likely than whites to advance to college and to graduate.

Until recently, these tendencies were explained by common anecdotes that revolved around family values and the Asian work ethic.

According to Xie and Goyette, the Asian-American population in the United states is likely to continue to increase rapidly in coming years. Very little real research has been done to measure how this diverse group is doing in American life.

What baffles many researchers is what seems like the paradox of Asian-American success. According to the authors, “Asian American seem to have suffered disadvantages as a minority but fare well by standard measures of socioeconomic success.”

Asian-Americans have been barred from joining unions, owning land, testifying in court, professional licensure, and even marriage, the authors report. Most of these abuses were ongoing in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.

According to “Social Mobility and Educational Choices…,” education has played a key role in the success of Asian-Americans. Their explanation combines the influence of Asian values, job expectations, and the difficulty Asians experience when trying to live simultaneously in two different ‘worlds.’

As newcomers, Asians have often been marginal members of society. “Facing the possibility of discrimination and lacking necessary political resources and social capital, Asian Americans who strive to achieve high status look for paths that present few barriers. In the market economy… upward mobility through channels of higher education, independent business, and science and engineering is preferred to that… where subjective criteria predominate.”

Xie and Goyette reject the “model minority” label that is sometimes associated with Asian immigrants and their descendants. They warn that the tag is “simplistic” and “obscures the complex nature of the social mobility processes experienced by Asian Americans.”

The likelihood of financial reward and success, as seen by Asian-American youth “planning for their future” is far higher in nuclear physics or engineering, say Goyette and Xie, than in pursuing careers in law or politics that require social and political connections.

The authors conclude that Asian- American students make their educational plans based upon their career expectations. They also found that Asian-American students are more likely than white students to enroll in college beyond what is needed to just meet those goals.

Asian-Americans in college “in mathematical science and social science… are under-represented in expected education but over-represented in actual enrollment.”

This study reports that most of the differences that are observed between white students and Asian students in their choice of college and occupational goals can be explained by seeing formal education as a means to upward social mobility.

“Our thesis is that, being marginal racially, culturally, and politically, Asian Americans favor formal education, particularly formal education in fields of high demand in the economy, as their preferred channel of mobility.”

The “Social Mobility…” study sheds new light on Asian-American success, replacing the cultural explanation with one that makes sense in terms of the goals, incentives, and choices facing newcomers.

Dr. Karen Palasek is an assistant editor of Carolina Journal.