Equity & Diversity

Schools Struggle to Properly Count Native Students. Some States Want Them to Try Harder

By Mark Lieberman — September 05, 2023 7 min read
Indigenous Navajo high school students in the hallway of a high school.
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For decades, thousands of Native American students nationwide have been overlooked or miscategorized in enrollment and academic performance data, thanks to data collection design flaws that often leads to Native students being lumped in with other demographic groups or erased altogether.

But a growing handful of states has moved in recent years to require that schools collect enrollment data on Native students’ tribal affiliations, rather than simply asking students to check whether or not they identify as “American Indian or Alaska Native.” Advocacy from tribal leaders and Native officials in state education departments has prompted policy changes in Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.

Most recently, Michigan invested $3 million to help schools purchase technical systems and hire staff to collect data on students’ affiliation with the dozen tribes that reside in the state.

With more detailed data collection, schools stand to collect more federal funding geared toward services for Native American students. Tribes will gain access to more granular data about how their students are doing in schools that operate outside their control.

Roughly 574 federally recognized Native American tribes and 60 state-recognized tribes sit within America’s present borders. The federal government has committed to a “trust responsibility” with those tribes to ensure the preservation of their land, customs, and resources. That commitment also includes the right to tribal sovereignty—the ability to govern themselves within U.S. borders.

Most tribes are not cloistered from the rest of the American population. More than 90 percent of the tribes’ roughly 500,000 children attend U.S. public school districts, rather than schools operated directly by tribal governments or the federal Bureau of Indian Education. Roughly half of those students attend schools where the student body is only 10 percent Native or less, according to the Native Indian Education Association.

But when schools fail to ask for students’ tribal affiliations, they flatten public understanding of the nuances of those groups, said Alex Red Corn, assistant professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University.

“The state tends to have control over the education of all the students,” said Red Corn, whose family hails from the Osage nation. “If they have control of the education of the students, these tribal governments don’t have a mechanism for knowing how their kids are doing in the other government’s public school system.”

These data issues extend beyond K-12 schools. The National Congress of American Indians has a term for it: the “asterisk nation,” because data on Native Americans are often accompanied by an asterisk that points to numerous caveats about the limits of the sample.

“While American Indians and Alaska Natives are an integral and unique part of U.S. society, we continue to be invisible to most other Americans due to an absence of data, accurate media images, and historical and contemporary awareness about Native peoples in schools, health-care facilities, professions, military service, and daily life,” the group writes.

Some states with the largest share of K-12 students who are Native American—namely, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, and New Mexico—don’t yet have policies in place to capture tribal affiliation data from those students. In those states, between 10 percent and 22 percent of K-12 students are Native American, according to federal data.

Why do so many Native students end up being miscategorized?

The federal government began collecting data on racial categories like “Hispanic or Latino” and “American Indian or Alaska Native” in 1980, part of a push for broader racial inclusion begun 12 years earlier by the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

“American Indians” are the only group in the country required to demonstrate their race or ethnicity by proving their membership or heritage with a tribal nation, according to a 2017 report from Education Northwest, a nonprofit group that advocates for equity in education.

But once they overcome that hurdle, Native students have more complexities to navigate. A large share of Native children also identify as Hispanic or Latino. Or they identify with the demographic option for “two or more races.”

If a form doesn’t request more information on a student’s tribal affiliation, checking one of those options means the student’s Native status won’t be reflected in the data.

“This question of tribal affiliation or identification, is also trying to register the fact that American Indian students are not a monolithic group,” said Claus von Zastrow, senior policy director for the Education Commission of the States. “Every time we lump them together in a big group, you begin to lose that sensitivity about what sorts of more specific help certain student populations need.”

How severe is the undercounting?

It’s hard to say for sure, of course, because of the lack of comprehensive data. However, some recent reports hint at the scope of the problem.

A 2017 report from the Oregon state education department found that out of roughly 61,000 students who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, only slightly more than 8,000 were identified by the state as belonging to that category. More than 41,000 ended up falling under “Hispanic or Latino,” and another 11,000 were classified as “two or more races” or “multi-racial.”

More recently, in Michigan, the state education department found that only one-third of the 27,000 Native students in the state are currently counted toward state figures, according to a data analysis shared with local media. Those findings led to the newly passed requirement to collect tribal affiliation data from K-12 students.

“You want to say something about how American Indians are faring, what opportunities they have, and you can’t,” von Zastrow said.

What are some barriers to collecting these data once it’s legally required to do so?

A student may not always have a clear-cut answer about their tribal affiliation at the ready. Some may not know all the nuances of the tribe with which they identify. While a person can only be a citizen of one tribe, they can be affiliated with many.

According to Von Zastrow, some families, as well as tribal leaders themselves, may be reluctant to share personal information with the federal government, given its violent and painful history with Native American tribes.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, white Americans operated boarding schools that essentially kidnapped more than tens of thousands of Native children, forced them to assimilate into Western culture, and in some cases killed or permanently traumatized them, according to documents recently unearthed by the federal government and other groups.

Today, the ongoing legacy of colonialism and the forced separation of Native tribes from their land translates to Native students experiencing poverty at higher rates than their white peers. Hundreds of U.S. public schools to this day retain mascots and monikers with Native American names or slurs.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to these data issues, school systems often overlook or underestimate the importance of services and resources Native populations need, Red Corn said.

“You have a lot of people that are experts on Title I. There’s people in districts responsible for keeping that going,” he said. “Those same districts don’t even know what’s in Title VI” of the Indian Education Act, which annually affords roughly hundreds of grants to help Native students and educators.

What’s the value of having these data requirements in place?

In 2021, Oklahoma passed a law requiring the collection of K-12 tribal affiliation data. Since then, the state has entered into fruitful data-sharing agreements with several local tribes; forged partnerships with local school districts to ensure data collection is going smoothly; and developed plans to amend the state’s data-sharing framework to include this new information.

Some tribal leaders may seek out these data for themselves, while others may need guidance from state education leaders or other exports to help them understand how this information could be useful for them, said Red Corn, who’s recently been consulting with tribal leaders in Kansas on the possibility of data-sharing agreements that could be of value.

In a presentation last month at a federal education data conference in Maryland, representatives from Michigan’s state education department said they hope collecting tribal affiliation data will help schools develop culturally responsive instruction for populations of students that might now be going overlooked. This approach also helps states meet the requirement, passed as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, to consult with tribes on education issues.

Knowing the precise number of students in particular tribes opens the possibility for schools to get more grants from programs like Title VI Indian Education and the Johnson-O’Malley Indian Education program.

Vendors of student information systems also have a role to play, according to the Michigan presentation. They can proactively include questions about tribal affiliations in the systems they sell to districts. And they can add drop-down menus to smooth the process for school staff putting in and interpreting these data points.

As with much of this work, that’s easier said than done.

“There are three times as many federally recognized tribes in the United States as there are countries in the rest of the world,” the presentation said. “That’s a heck of a drop-down menu!”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of Education Week as Schools Struggle to Properly Count Native Students. Some States Want Them to Try Harder

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