Assessment

NAEP Scores Stagnating for Native American Pupils

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 30, 2010 5 min read

The average reading and mathematics scores for Native American and Alaska Native students remained flat on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2005 to 2009, a federal report says.

And only 57 percent of 8th graders who are Native Americans or Alaska Natives report they plan to go to college full time after high school, the study released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found.

The study stemmed from an executive order on American Indian and Alaska Native education signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Its findings on Native American students’ lackluster achievement come as President Barack Obama’s administration is putting new emphasis on working with tribal leaders on American Indian education issues.

The Education Department is working with the U.S. Department of the Interior to conduct “consultations” throughout Indian country on how to improve education for Native American students.

Charlie Rose, the Education Department’s general counsel, said in a telephone interview this week that he’s been devoting a “significant amount of time” to the issue and added that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is focusing on it as well. Mr. Rose was expecting to take part in a consultation at the Navajo Nation’s department of education today in Window Rock, Ariz.

So far, federal Education Department officials have participated in consultations with tribes in Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and New Mexico. In addition to the one scheduled for today in Arizona, a consultation is planned for Washington state, Mr. Rose said.

‘Listening’ Mode

Mr. Rose said that the Obama administration is in a “listening” stage, and that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be the vehicle to address some of the tribes’ concerns.

“The problem from the tribes’ perspective of the No Child Left Behind Act is that while it exposed the achievement gap, it narrowed the curriculum with a focus on standardized tests in math and English,” he said of the current version of the ESEA. “Native American language and cultural preservation has to be a priority in the ESEA reauthorization.”

Some tribes, he said, also would like to see their own education departments given status equal to that of state education agencies for receiving federal aid under the next version of the ESEA.

Mr. Rose said the IES report shows that “we still have a substantial amount of work to do to address American Indian education.” He called the finding on Native American 8th graders’ college aspirations a “terrible statistic.”

Arnold A. Goldstein, the program director for design analysis and reporting for the assessment division of the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathered the data for the new report, said that statistic also struck him as “very low.”

Mr. Goldstein said the study’s finding that Native American achievement in reading and math is “considerably below” that of white students and Asians and Pacific Islanders is “reason for concern.”

Native American and Alaska Native students in 4th grade scored about the same as black and Hispanic students on NAEP in reading, according to the study. Such students in the 8th grade scored higher than black students on average in reading and about the same as Hispanic students in that subject. In math, the scores for Native American 4th graders were higher on average than those for black 4th graders and lower than those for Hispanic 4th graders. In the 8th grade, Native Americans scored higher than black students and about the same as Hispanic students in math.

States Vary

In 2009, 50 percent of Native American 4th graders scored at the “basic” level or above in reading on NAEP, the report says, while 62 percent of Native American 8th graders scored at that level. In math, 66 percent of Native American 4th graders scored at “basic” or above, while 56 percent of Native American 8th graders scored at the same level in that subject.

The study also looked at achievement of Native Americans in 12 states that have large populations of such students and found widely varying results. For example, while only 26 percent of Native American 4th graders scored at “basic” or above in reading in Alaska, 63 percent did so in Oklahoma.

While average NAEP test scores in math for Native American students didn’t budge for the nation from 2005 to 2009, they did increase in two of the 12 states that the study examined. Of the seven states that had large enough samples of Native American students to report achievement results in both 2005 and 2009, Oklahoma had a 5-point increase, on a scale of 500 points, for 4th graders in math, and South Dakota had a 10-point increase for 8th graders in the same subject.

None of those seven states, however, had a significant increase in reading scores over that time span for either 4th or 8th graders.

In addition to providing data about the achievement of Native American students, the study examined cultural aspects of the education of such students, basing its findings on surveys of students and their teachers.

Infusing Culture

The study found, for example, that the teachers of 43 percent of Native American 4th graders integrate lessons and materials about Native American culture and history and current Native American issues into their reading or math lessons at least once a month. About 3,800 4th grade teachers and 4,600 8th grade teachers participated in the study’s survey of teachers.

That section of the study also notes that just 57 percent of Native American 8th graders have plans to attend college full time after high school. Twenty-seven percent of Native American 8th graders said they planned to work full time, and 19 percent said they intended to join the military. Some wanted to work or go to school part time or had other plans.

Mr. Rose said that about 90 percent of the nation’s Native American students attend regular public schools. The study found that achievement of Native Americans in such schools was higher than that of their counterparts in schools run by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education.

At the same time, the part of the study looking at cultural aspects of students’ education found that students in BIE schools were more likely to have Native American teachers and opportunities to learn about their culture, history, and current Native American issues than their American Indian peers in regular public schools.

“Learning and teaching are very complex,” Mr. Goldstein said about the findings concerning BIE schools. “The fact that you have more Native American teachers in the BIE schools might imply there is a greater understanding of the student background on the part of the teachers.”

“However, we’re talking about reading and math skills,” he said. “There may not be a direct correlation between being a Native American teacher, or of any other ethnic group, and teaching those skills.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week

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