It was presented as good news.
In front of a group of student leaders at Alhambra High School, Assistant Principal Grace Love spoke in February about the school’s recent gains on state tests.
Alhambra, she said, had narrowed the gap in test scores between Asian and Latino students. Overall, Latino test takers had improved their composite scores on state tests faster than any other group over the last four years.
Robin Zhou, an 18-year-old columnist for the Moor, the school newspaper, listened skeptically. He had trouble seeing any reason to celebrate.
To him, the real news in Love’s statistics wasn’t the small gains she was pointing out, but rather the wide gulf that still existed between Asians and Latinos.
The composite scores for Asians at Alhambra High were still far above those of Latinos. According to Love’s presentation, 57% of Asian ninth-graders passed the state’s English Language Arts standards test, but only 28% of Latino ninth-graders passed. It was even worse in algebra, with only 12% of Latinos passing the test as compared to 49% of Asians.
To Zhou, the data raised a question: “Why was the gap there in the first place?”
With the next round of state tests looming, Zhou decided to examine the subject in his newspaper column. He said he did so out of a desire to get people to focus on solutions. That’s not what happened—at least not at first.
That there are gaps in test scores among racial and ethnic groups is an uncomfortable truth in modern day education.
The achievement gap, as racial disparities in test scores are known in education circles, exists at schools throughout the nation. It also exists across class lines.
Examining the issue requires traversing a political and cultural minefield. Every possible explanation is likely to offend, which may be why the subject rarely provokes the kind of discussion that might eventually lead to change.
Using test scores as a measure, Latino students are “not pulling their weight,” the article said.
Zhou then went on to try to explain the gap. The first reason, he wrote, was largely cultural, in that Asian parents were more likely to “push their children to move toward academic success, while many Hispanic parents are well-meaning but less active.”
The editors and reporters in the room crowded around co-editor-in-chief Lena Chen to read the draft. They understood that Zhou’s article touched on dangerous ground; they agreed that he needed to tone down his language, even though many of them thought he had made some valid points and had thoroughly researched the subject.
“My first reaction? Robin’s gonna get beat up,” recalled Sara Martinez, a 16-year-old Latina, who was the only non-Asian student to read the article that day.
Some teachers tried to use it as a tool for teaching cultural sensitivity. Other teachers were simply incensed. One math teacher scrawled “racist” across the article and posted it on the blackboard.
Heading home on the day the article came out, Landeros wondered what her mother, a 45-year-old nurse and certified diabetes educator, would think.
In the days that followed, Zhou’s friends told him that Latino students he didn’t even know were talking about beating him up or pelting him with paintballs at graduation.
The dean and the principal called him in to discuss his reasons for writing the article. They reassured him that they would look out for any hint of trouble.
On March 30, those who disagreed with Zhou made a show of solidarity. Almost all the Latino students and a few white and black students wore shirts that were brown or made statements of Latino pride, including “Hecho en Mexico.” Landeros wore a T-shirt with the words “Stay Brown Chicanas”