NAEP Scores Still Stalled for Native American Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 03, 2012 7 min read
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In a year of growth for many student groups on national tests, students of American Indian and Alaskan native descent are in an academic rut, according to a new study of the National Assessment of Education Progress.

But the study also identifies progress for those students in Oklahoma and a few other states that researchers say may point to ways states can better support students of Native Alaskan or American Indian heritage.

Achievement gaps on the test dubbed the “Nation’s Report Card” have remained stagnant for Native American students in reading since 2005, and in mathematics they have actually increased, according to the 2011 National Indian Education Study, released this morning by the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. American Indian and Alaskan native students make up about 1 percent of all American students.

A 10-point increase on the NAEP is equal to about one grade level of improvement, and the study found Native American 4th graders trail two grade levels behind non-Indian peers on average reading scores, 202 scale-score points versus 221, and one grade behind their peers in 8th grade, 252 versus 265. A majority of 4th grade Indian students performed below the basic achievement level in that subject. They would not be able, for example, to recognize conversation directly stated in a story or use a character’s statement to interpret a character trait.

In 8th grade, 61 percent of Native American students performed at the basic or proficient level, meaning they could recognize an essay narrator’s motivation or describe the main purpose of an information article, but on average could not form an opinion about the central issue in a persuasive essay.

Growing Gaps

In mathematics, the achievement gap between American Indian and other students has become more pronounced since 2005. The math gap has grown by roughly half an academic year’s progress from 2005 to 2011: For 4th graders, the gap increased from 12 to 16 scale-score points on average, and for 8th graders it grew from 15 to 19 points on average during that time. Two-thirds of American Indian students performed at or above basic achievement in 2011, meaning they could find the difference between two four-digit numbers but on average could not put fractions with different denominators in order from largest to smallest. Of 8th grade Native American students, more than half also performed at the basic level. On average, these students could identify congruent angles on a triangle, but likely could not convert different units to solve a problem.

Dawn Mackety, the director of research, data, and policy for the Washington-based National Indian Education Association, said she wasn’t surprised at the findings, but added there are some signs of improvement. Bureau of Indian Education schools, for example, have improved 8th grade reading scores from 228 to 234 since 2007. “We’re always happy when we see any kind of positive thing,” she said. “It’s not all negative across the board; there are some successes out there.”

Achievement Gaps

Achievement Gap in 4th Grade Math for Native American Students


Achievement Gap in 8th Grade Math for Native American Students


The overall trends for Native American students are at odds with other recent NAEP studies, which have found black students narrowing achievement gaps with white students on the NAEP and Hispanic students increasing in achievement while holding gaps steady. NCES Commissioner Sean P. “Jack” Buckley said there aren’t any statistics that point to a particular reason American Indian and Alaskan Native students should be so far behind their peers.

The study did, however, note that a majority of American Indian and Alaskan native students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, considered a mark of low family income. In Bureau of Indian Education schools and district schools with a high concentration of Native American students, the percentage of students identified as low-income exceeded 80 percent in 4th grade and ranged to as high as 90 percent in 8th grade in 2011.

A majority of the students also attended rural schools, which may have fewer resources to support the needs of special student groups. The study found schools with low concentrations of Native American students tended to have better-performing students in those groups, but variations in individual states’ Native population concentrations did not necessarily mean better or worse achievement for their students.

Ms. Mackety noted that schools with high concentrations of Native students are more likely to be in areas of high poverty, fewer out-of-school resources, and lower teacher salaries. Even so, she and other researchers have also found that these schools are more likely to have other characteristics shown to support American Indian students’ learning: “The higher the population of native students, the more likely it is they are getting some sort of language and culture instruction in the classroom and teachers who are from the native community,” she said.

Oklahoma Bucks Trend

Performance varied widely among the dozen states with individual reports in the study. A handful of states exceeded the national average in limited areas. Minnesota’s American Indian students outperformed the nation in 4th grade mathematics and 8th grade reading. In Oregon, such students outperformed the national average in reading at both grades. Also in reading, North Dakota’s American Indian students surpassed their national peers, on average, in 4th grade and Montana’s did so in 8th grade.

Yet Oklahoma was the only state in which Native American students outperformed the national average in both grades in reading and math.

Nearly four out of five American Indian 4th graders in the Sooner State met at least the basic benchmark in math, and 59 percent did so in reading. That’s compared with 67 percent of American Indian 4th graders who achieved at least at the basic level in mathematics and 47 percent in reading.

Similarly, Oklahoma, where average scores have grown significantly, from 267 in 2005 to 272 in 2011, was the only state above the national average for American Indian students on 8th grade mathematics.

“This is not new for Oklahoma. If we look back at previous years, Oklahoma has for several years been an outlier,” Mr. Buckley said in a phone briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “That suggests to a policymaker that maybe there’s something they should take a look at, but nothing has jumped out as to how the state has cracked the code,” he said.

Since the first National Indian Education Study was released in 2005, Ms. Mackety said, “I think there have been intensive efforts to work with Native American students, to get them more engaged with school, to involve them in the school culture and improve attendance.”

For example, more school districts now work with students to make up work missed during culturally related absences, such as seasonal activities or the ceremonies related to the death of a loved one, each of which may take several days.

“More schools are aware of activities that may pull students out of school and some of them are able to work with the tribes to help the students make up the work,” she said. “These are not just students skipping to skip; these are students skipping for a valid cultural purpose.”

Cultural Knowledge Lost

This is the fourth special report since 2005 on American Indian and Alaskan Native students attending public, private, Bureau of Indian Education, and Department of Defense schools throughout the country. Because these students make up a small sliver of total school enrollment, regular NAEP assessments typically only have national samples. For the 2011 special study, federal researchers tested about 10,900 4th grade and 8,300 8th grade students from 12 states in reading or mathematics. The study did not include high school students.


The researchers also surveyed 10,200 4th graders, 10,300 8th graders, 7,600 teachers, and nearly 4,000 school administrators about instructional practices and the ways that schools connect students to their native cultures.

A majority of American Indian and Alaskan native 4th graders reported having “some” or “a lot” of knowledge about their own tribe’s history, traditions and culture, an increase from when the question was first posed in 2009. However, 8th grade students reported no increase in cultural knowledge, and fewer reported knowing “a lot” about issues important to their tribes, 14 percent compared to 16 percent in 2009. Students in Bureau of Indian Education schools were significantly more likely to know about their tribe’s history, traditions and important issues than students in district-run schools.

Some states have also begun working to shore up students’ cultural knowledge. Montana, for example, has developed an “Indian Education for All” curriculum to teach tribal history and culture to all elementary and secondary students in the state.

“The students knowing themselves is so important to doing well in school,” Ms. Mackety said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week


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