Students of east and south-east Asian background were the top-performing group in 10 of the 13 most popular courses on the 2013 Higher School Certificate honour roll, new research shows.
They were nearly 30 times more likely to make the Maths Extension 2 honour roll than their Anglo-Celtic classmates and four times more likely to make the 2013 honour roll.
Even in English, they were five times more likely to make the high achievers list than those of Anglo-Celtic origin.
Students who scored 90 or above in an HSC course in 2013, by cultural background
The findings come as 76,000 students across the state prepare to receive their HSC results this week.
University of Canberra education researcher Ting Wang said similar patterns occur in the US, Canada and New Zealand. She linked high achievement of east and south-east Asian students to the values of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
"In Confucian-heritage societies, learning is a moral duty and studying hard is a responsibility to the family and society. It is actually not a personal undertaking," she said.
Education is a powerful tool for social mobility, Associate Professor Wang said. And in densely-populated Asia, fierce competition for resources meant people saw education as critically important.
Other Confucian values include respect for teachers, a collectivist approach to academic success and a belief that hard work can compensate for lack of ability.
Wilma Vialle, professor of education psychology at the University of Wollongong, contrasted this focus on hard work with the Western view of giftedness as "innate".
She said Australians were often critical of after-school tutoring, despite having no problem with after-school tennis or football coaching.
"What I hear from a lot of teachers in selective high schools is that these kids aren't actually gifted. They just spend all their time studying and that's why they're getting a result – as if that's somehow cheating," she said.
In the Eastern view of giftedness, "if you don't accomplish something, it's because you didn't work hard enough, not because of some problem with your ability," Professor Vialle said.
And when you believe hard work can strengthen your weaknesses "that gives you the motivation to say, 'I can change that'."
The research on the 2013 HSC honour roll, done for Fairfax by OriginsInfo, traced the cultural ancestry of more than 15,000 students by analysing the first and family name, then comparing the number in each cultural group with their proportion in the community. The company draws on a global database of more than 1.1 billion names and claims an accuracy rate of about 85 per cent.
It found students of south Asian background were the second-highest performing group behind east and south-east Asian, with significant over-representation in 11 of the 13 courses.
Students of Anglo-Celtic origin were under-represented in 11 courses and the least likely to make the honour roll in 10 courses among nine cultural groups.
University of Western Sydney education and culture researcher Megan Watkins warned against making assumptions about ethnicity and academic performance.
"Culture is not a synonym for ethnicity ... It is not something innate," she said.
Associate Professor Watkins said her research showed that habits enforced at home, such as being quiet and focusing on homework, often served Asian children well at school.
"[But] you could look at any child, from any background, who performs well in the HSC and chances are, from very early on, they had a similar kind of commitment to their work."
Inga Ting (Sydney Herald Morning)