Indian Students Outperform Blacks on NAEP

By Alyson Klein — June 06, 2006 4 min read

American Indian students tend to lag behind their white and Asian-American peers on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and mathematics tests in 4th and 8th grade, but they score higher on average than African-American students, according to a first-of-its-kind federal analysis.

The U.S. Department of Education says the May 23 report from its National Center for Education Statistics is the first to analyze NAEP data specifically for the performance of American Indian and Alaska Native students. The study examined 2005 scores for students attending public and private schools, as well as those operated by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Defense.

It was spurred by a 2004 executive order signed by President Bush that was intended to help Indian and Alaska Native students meet the academic standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act, in part by calling for a report on their academic progress.

The report will serve as a baseline for measuring such students’ gains in reading and math, said Cathie Carothers, the acting director of the Education Department’s office of Indian education. She said the results show that Indian and Alaska Native students are performing “as well as or better than other minority groups.”

Testing American Indians and Alaska Natives

American Indian and Alaska Native students were behind their white and Asian-American peers but ahead of African American students and statistically even with Hispanics on the 8th grade reading test of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Testing American Indians and Alaska Natives

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

The study also found that American Indian and Alaska Native students tend to score about the same as Hispanic students on NAEP reading tests in 4th and 8th grades. Their scores were also similar to those of Hispanic students on the 4th grade math test, but slightly higher than Hispanic students’ on the 8th grade math test.

NAEP is given to a representative sample of students nationwide. The assessment includes periodic tests in a variety of subjects, including civics and the arts, but only the 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests are required for states to receive federal education funds. Those tests are given every two years.

Typically, American Indian and Alaska Native students make up about 1 percent of the national NAEP sample, which is not enough to draw concrete conclusions about those populations, the report says. But for purposes of the study, more of those students than usual were administered the tests.

Ms. Carothers said the Education Department is planning to issue a similar report based on 2007 NAEP scores in reading and math, and could continue the process in 2009 and beyond. She said monitoring the progress of American Indian and Alaska Native students could help educators determine whether they are reaching these students.

The results of the “National Indian Education Study (NIES), Part I: Performance of American Indian and Alaska Native Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students on the 2005 NAEP Reading and Mathematics Assessments” is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“There is the potential it could assist schools in working to close the achievement gap,” she said.

But Sandra Fox, an education consultant based in New Mexico who worked for about 25 years on education issues for the BIA, expressed doubt that the NAEP tests are the best way to measure Indian students’ learning.

She said that many Indians are at a disadvantage compared with students nationally on the federal tests, because they sometimes include material that may be outside Native Americans’ cultural context, such as references to escalators or shopping malls. “A lot of what is called the education gap has not so much to do with the learning of the kids as it has to do with socioeconomic status and experiences,” Ms. Fox said.

Regional Scores

The federal analysis also examined NAEP scores for states with relatively high numbers of American Indian and Alaska Native students. It found that Indian students in Oklahoma had a higher average score than such students nationally or in other selected states, including Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Oklahoma state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, a member of the Cherokee nation, said that may be due partly to the fact that nearly 100 percent of Oklahoma’s Indian students attend public schools run by districts, rather than schools on reservations, as in some other states with large American Indian populations.

“In general, we have the same mantra” for all students, Ms. Garrett said. “We have the same directions, same school improvement techniques. We’ve all been educated together, for a very long time.”

Officials in other states said they were already working to address the achievement gap highlighted in the report.

“We’ve known about the achievement gap between Native Americans and Caucasian students,” said Eric Fry, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. He said the state has set up a mentoring program for new teachers to help retain them in rural areas where many Alaska Native students live, among other interventions.

The federal Education Department plans to release a second part of the study this fall, containing the results from an in-depth survey of American Indian and Alaska Native students and their teachers. The survey will cover demographic factors, school culture, language, and teacher qualifications.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Indian Students Outperform Blacks on NAEP


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