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Are ALL Chinese Students Doing Well in School?

The stereotype of Chinese students in America is that they are all doing well in school, so well that elite high schools and colleges across the country are flooded with them. Quotas for Asians were initially established, only to be replaced (when quotas were deemed illegal) by other proxies and vague metrics used to limit Asian students in elite academic institutions.

But are all Chinese students doing well in school? The average academic achievement of Chinese students, as defined by grades and test scores, is above other ethnic groups in America, including Whites. But just by the definition of “average,” there must be high achievers and low achievers. And if the high achievers are doing so well, there must be low achievers who are doing very poorly. Who are those low achievers?

By starting a school that adopts Chinese education and cultural practices as well as teaches Chinese language and culture, we have unsurprisingly attracted Chinese students in this early stage, especially those from immigrant families. What we have found so far surprised even us.

In the past six months, we have provided free academic assessments in math and English to over 80 students in 3rd through 8th grades, all from San Francisco public schools. All of the students were born in the US, most of them to immigrant families who speak only Chinese at home. All of the students speak English fluently. However, when we assessed them for English proficiency, they were on average 2 years behind grade level in vocabulary and 1.6 years behind in English Language Arts. And in math, they were on average 1.7 years behind grade level.

Why are these students so far behind in English?

One reason is that unlike English speaking families, these Chinese parents have not been reading English books to their children since they were little. Oftentimes, these children’s first exposure to English is through TV, and then in school. They do pick-up spoken English relatively quickly once they go to school, which leads their parents to believe their English is fine. However, being able to speak English fluently does not mean that they can read and write English well. Because the parents don’t read and write English well, they have no way to help their children or even assess how good their children’s English is. The only way parents can gauge is through report cards, and as we know, grades these days are quite inflated; so parents think everything is fine when their children bring home all A’s and B’s. But in reality, those A’s and B’s do not reflect proficiency but include other factors such as attendance, effort, neatness, etc. The result is that when students are assessed for their English vocabulary and reading comprehension proficiency, they are behind.

Regarding math, students also need to understand how to read for math, especially starting in 3rd grade when word problems are introduced. When students cannot read and understand written English well, they cannot solve world problems correctly even if you know the math.

After finding out how behind their students are, many of these parents send them to Bert Hsu Academy (BHA) for Saturday tutoring or transfer to us for day school. We have been working with these students to catch them up, using an AI-enabled platform called Afficient that is very comprehensive, rigorous and aligned with Common Core Standards.

We motivate students to use the Afficient platform to learn math under the guidance and tutoring of our teachers. Of our six day school students in the 4th-6th grade, they came in with an average of 2.5 grades BEHIND grade level in math. Today, after an average of 5 months being at BHA, the team on average has CAUGHT UP TO GRADE LEVEL, with a 5th grader doing math 2 grades ABOVE grade level! Of our 21 Saturday Booster Club students, they came in with an average of 2.6 grades BEHIND grade level in math. Today, less than 3 months later, the team on average has CAUGHT UP ONE GRADE LEVEL, with one of them learning material ABOVE his grade level! Similar progress is being made in English vocabulary and language arts.


Three years out of the pandemic, we are seeing first hand its impact on students. One current 4th grader didn’t learn handwriting well in kindergarten and 1st grade zoom school so that he takes too long to do math problems and write essays on paper. One current 5th grader didn’t learn phonics in 1st and 2nd grade (likely not due to the pandemic and zoom school but due to the faulty reading curriculum that SFUSD had adopted) so that he can’t sound out words he doesn’t know. One 6th grader didn’t learn the multiplication table in 2nd and 3rd grade so he can’t reach 3rd grade math proficiency. We have worked with each one of these students to address their individual needs using the AI-enabled platform under the guidance and tutoring of our teachers, and all of them are now back on track and making great progress!

So, contrary to the stereotype, not all Chinese students are doing well in school. They are just like any other group of students with a wide range of interests, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. And the problems that we are seeing at BHA apply not just to immigrant families’ students but to all students, especially in public schools, because even students from English speaking families have been subject to faulty reading curriculum, inflated grades and low expectations. Many parents have chosen to supplement their children’s public education with private tutoring. But those families with little or no resources cannot afford to, leaving their children in the cold. That is why BHA, with our already reasonable tuition, provides financial assistance to families in need and strives to provide an academically challenging, individualized education at an affordable price to working and immigrant families of San Francisco.

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