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American Indian students improve test scores

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PIERRE, S.D. - American Indian students in South Dakota lag slightly behind
the rest of the state in reading skills, but a donation of more than 20,000
books will help close that gap, educators claim.

The books were donated by Scholastic, the global children's publishing
company through its "Kids in Distressed Situations" program. The donation
to the tribes in South Dakota was initiated by Barb Johnson, wife of Sen.
Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Johnson began the project in 2002 with Fred and Gail Cedar Face of the
Oglala Sioux Healthy Start office on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The books
were unloaded in the gymnasium of the Lower Brule High School and tribal
schools throughout the state can pick up the books.

"When we first heard about the donation we assumed they meant 2,000 books.
Twenty-thousand was almost more than any of us could absorb. This will
literally make the libraries at some of these schools," Johnson said.
Johnson works as a school counselor in the Washington D.C. area.

The goal of the project is to make a significant impact on literacy in
communities and regions where the need has been determined.

While South Dakota schools showed improvement in test scores required by
the No Child Left Behind Act, American Indian students in the public school
systems also showed improvement, but less than other students. Test results
from the tribal schools were not available.

In South Dakota 109 schools or 15 percent of the state's schools were
listed in the school improvement category. Of that number, one-half of the
schools have a predominantly American Indian population or are comprised
completely of American Indian students.

Of the four Pine Ridge schools, three are in improvement status: Batesland,
Rockyford and Wolf Creek Elementary schools.

The Smee District at Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation has three
schools, all need improvement and all are eligible for Title I. Wakpala
High School showed significant improvement in reading skills. In 2003, 50
percent of 11th graders were reading below basic level. In 2004, 80 percent
of the 11th graders were reading at the basic level and no students read
below basic level.

American Indian students statewide for all grades have lower reading skills
than all students combined. Statewide, 27 percent of students read at the
advanced level compared to 9 percent for American Indians; 50 percent of
all students read at the proficient level compared to 45 percent of
American Indian students; 21 percent of all students read at the basic
level while 44 percent of American Indian students are at the basic level
of reading and less than 1 percent statewide are below basic levels and 2
percent of American Indian students read below the basic levels.

Bennett County schools populated with students from the Pine Ridge and
Rosebud reservations had two schools that showed enough improvement to move
out of improvement status.

Bennett County Junior High, for example, did meet the criteria for reading
skills, but attendance and lower math scores kept the school in improvement
status.

Bennett County High School did meet enough of the criteria to not be listed
in the improvement category.

At Eagle Butte High School, although the graduation rate was met, both math
and reading skills showed no improvement from the 2003 - 2004 school years.
Even though reading skills improved at Eagle Butte High School, it was
below state criteria, which puts the school in the improvement category in
reading and math.

A school district that went through litigation to include American Indians
on the board of education, the Wagner School District on the Yankton
Reservation, had only one school in improvement status, the junior high. To
look at the figures also shows there is a slight disparity in the reading
levels between American Indian students and non-Indian students, but the
gap is closing.

In 2003 no American Indian 7th grade students were reading at the advanced
level, but in 2004 that figure jumped to 14 percent while the non-Indian
students dropped from 29 to 18 percent at the advanced level. American
Indian 7th graders also improved from 25 percent below basic level reading
to no students reading below basic level.

"The schools identified for improvement often have diverse student
populations. The state looks forward to helping them meet their goals for
the future. Meanwhile, we intend to engage in a national discussion on the
key principles of No Child Left Behind, as it relates to diverse school
districts," said Dr. Rick Melmer, state secretary of education.

Educators in Indian country have argued that poverty is closely related to
the education level of a student. High alcoholism rates on some
reservations can also affect whether or not a student does homework, or
even attends school.

The NCLB Act does not take culture into account. Families on reservations
are very close knit. Funerals, births, illnesses and unscheduled trips to
larger cities all affect students' attendance and work schedules.

Many parents of today's children suffered from bad experiences in school,
whether boarding schools or public schools where they were treated poorly
and do not consider education as their first priority for their children,
education department officials at Rosebud said.

In 2004 the attendance rate for all students dropped a fraction of a
percentage point. Graduation rates also dropped. For non-Indian students,
the graduation rate dropped from 95.9 percent in 2003 to 92.3 percent in
2004. For American Indian students graduation numbers dropped from 84
percent in 2003 to 77 percent in 2004.

For example, the McLaughlin High School on the Standing Rock Reservation
improved in the math and reading skills level, but missed the goal for
graduation rate, which put the school on alert status. Alert status for
graduation means the district must work on graduation rates, but the school
will not be included in the improvement category.

The state graduation rate for American Indians is 77 percent.

Since NCLB was signed by President Bush in 2001, Indian country has found
some good qualities in the act as well as bad. While some educators argue
it doesn't take the cultural and economic conditions on reservations into
account, especially with the attendance and dropout rates, others praise
the act because it holds the education system responsible to account for
improving education levels while also setting goals.

"While these results are just one academic measure for our schools, we are
pleased that they are positive, and we commend educators and students
across the state for their hard work," Melmer said