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Nation's Report Card Shows Strengths, Shortfalls for Native American Students

Native American and Alaskan Native students are among the most vulnerable students in U.S. schools. But a new analysis of the National Assessment of Education Progress shows significant differences in the strengths and needs of tribal students in different types of schools.

NAEP Native American Gaps.PNG

Some 15,000 Native American students took the NAEP in reading or math in 4th or 8th grade in 2015, out of more than a half-million students nationwide, according to the new National Indian Education Study.

In both subjects and grades, Native American students have performed generally flat for more than a decade, as the chart to the left exemplifies for all students.

But a closer look at these students shows wide variation in how they perform at different schools. While most studies of Native American students focus on Bureau of Indian Education schools on tribal lands, only 8 percent of 4th graders and 7 percent of 8th graders who took the NAEP in 2015 attended such schools.

The vast majority attended regular public schools; nearly 60 percent of the Native American students who participated in NAEP attended "low density" schools, where they made up less than a quarter of all students. Roughly a third of tribal students in either grade attended "high density" schools, where they made up more than a quarter of the population. And the achievement levels look very different for students in BIE schools compared to regular public schools:

naep na math comparison.PNG

The score cut-off for basic achievement is 262 out of 500 on the 8th grade math test, meaning that Native American students who make up less than a quarter of their schools generally met basic requirements in math, and scored more than 20 points higher than their peers in BIE schools. For example, those in low-density schools would be more likely to be able to use proportional reasoning to solve a problem, while those in BIE schools scored at a level to be able to complete a table based on a description of a linear equation. 

Different Cultural and Academic Experiences

So what's going on? For one thing, students at these schools have very different backgrounds. Nearly half of 4th graders in schools on tribal lands are English-language learners. That's more than four times higher than the rate of English learners among Native students in high-density schools, and eight times higher than the rate at low-density schools. Rates among 8th graders show a similar spread. 

"The thing that strikes me is there're some pretty profound differences among American Indian and Alaskan Native students," said James Deaton, an assessment expert with the National Center for Education Statistics, which produced the NAEP study. "Students in BIE schools are more likely to be exposed to their language and culture; they are also more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged."

Students in tribal schools are also significantly more likely to live in poverty and attend rural schools, and they are less likely to have parents who graduated college or to have a computer at home. 

But schools on tribal lands also convey cultural advantages, according to the NAEP data. Roughly three out of five 4th and 8th grade students in BIE schools attend classes in a tribal language at least once a week, compared to a quarter or less of their peers in public schools. Twice as many teachers at BIE schools had taken courses focused on teaching Native American students, and they reported using culturally relevant teaching more regularly than did teachers in other schools. For example, more than half of math teachers and nearly 70 percent of reading teachers at BIE schools regularly incorporated current issues in their students' tribal community in their math or reading lessons. 

State Trends for Native Students Differ

Native American students make up about 1 percent of all U.S. students, but they are more concentrated in some states; NCES was only able to study state-level data for 14 states. Native American 4th and 8th graders in Oklahoma and Wisconsin had the highest average scale scores in both reading and math among all the states studied.

Charts Source: NAEP Data Explorer, National Indian Education Study 2015.

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