In case you came in late, we have been talking these past few weeks about various ironies in the college admissions game — athletic recruiting at places like Princeton that has all the intensity of a Big Ten football factory and allowances made to ensure a diverse undergraduate body, including minorities and children of alumni — not just a bunch of “wonks” (that’s “know” spelled backwards) with perfect SAT scores.

That’s one of the ironies: The SATs were sold to the American public by our friends at ETS as the great equalizer in higher education. The tests were a way for a kid from upstate New York, to pick an example dear to my heart, to get the attention of a place like Princeton. But, as we reported last week, some tests are more equal than others in the quest for diversity. And some are less equal: Data gathered over a 15-year period by the Mellon Foundation suggests that the test scores of Asian applicants at selective colleges are weighted down by 50 points or so to keep them from being admitted in disproportionate numbers.

By now we have all heard the stories of those bright and eager Asian achievers who excel in math and science, play first violin in the orchestra, and — just for fun — star on the tennis team and play piano. Out in towns like West Windsor and Plainsboro, where Asian-Americans make up 30 percent of the population, oldtimers scratch their heads in awe at classes like one recent advanced AP calculus class: 26 students, 23 of them Asian. How can they all be so smart?

U.S. 1’s sister publication, the biweekly West Windsor-Plainsboro News, attempted to answer that question. In an article earlier this year, the News cited cultural influences including the value of education and the Confucian work ethic to explain the Asian success. Plus it noted the self selection of the immigration process that brings the parents of these students to the U.S.: “Many of their parents come to America with little or no English, but they are doctors, engineers, or scientists in their native countries. The universal language of numbers gives them a more level playing field when it comes to finding employment in their new country, and it gives their children a chance to excel.”

The article, by Euna Kwon Brossman, herself a Korean-American who graduated from Yale and then became a major market television personality before retreating to her current life as a “suburban mom” with her husband and three kids, also noted that the super-achievers by no means represent all Asians. “There are Asian children who feel painted by a broad brush, pressured to excel at all costs. We often hear about the success stories, but we don’t hear as much about the children who struggle and don’t succeed. There are questions about what happens to the next generation of Asian children when the effects of assimilation take hold and the drive to excel merges with the drive to belong.”

Kwon Brossman can already see the difference between her parents’ attitude (pushing her unsuccessfully toward science and math) and her own parenting approach (she isn’t arguing with her daughter’s goal of becoming a professional hip-hop dancer).

A few weeks after Kwon Brossman’s article was published, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News heard of another hometown kid who had gained some international renown. In “Count Down,” a book published this year by Houghton Mifflin, author Steve Olson documents the efforts of the six Americans teenagers (selected from a group of a half million) who competed in the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad. One of the six was a West Windsor-Plainsboro kid, Ian Le, one of three Asian Americans on the U.S. team.

Olson tackles that same question: How can these Asian students all be so smart? Olson cites a study by a University of Michigan psychologist who tested the thinking abilities of first graders and fifth graders in Sendai, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Overall the differences were small. The psychologist concluded that the high achievement of the Asian children “cannot be attributed to higher intellectual abilities, but must be related to their experiences at home and at school.”

Olson notes, for example, that the Japanese have never been represented on the U.S. Math Olympiad team. But these are usually third or fourth generation Americans. “Most of the kids from China, Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian countries, on the other hand, are from families that have emigrated more recently,” writes Olson. “They speak more than one language and have experience with multiple cultures. From an early age they absorb the lesson that they must work hard to do well and that if they master mathematics and science they are more likely to succeed. Given the precarious position of immigrant families in U.S. society, the intensity of their drive to succeed is hardly surprising.”

So what are we to tell our kids? I like the advice of Kwon Brossman: “Getting good grades and testing well is important,” she wrote, “but real life demands other skills. A healthy shot of street smarts never hurts.”

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