BIA school progress under the microscope

WASHINGTON – A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that the federal government has not been effective in helping tribes create alternative definitions for adequate yearly progress at Bureau of Indian Education schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Indian educators have long been wary of the applicability of state adequate yearly progress standards to Native children attending BIA schools, given the limited opportunities tribes have had in the development of these standards.

The GAO report, titled “Improving Interior’s Assistance Would Aid Tribal Groups Developing Academic Accountability Systems,” found that less than a third of BIA schools made AYP goals under NCLB in the 2006 – 07 school year. Department of Education statistics indicate that student performance at BIA schools is lower than for students in public schools.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education operates 174 schools in 23 states, with a total enrollment of about 48,000 students.

Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, president of the National Indian Education Association, testified about the issue before Congress Sept. 9.

“Tribal communities are in the best position to determine the needs and the appropriate assessment methods for Native students,” he said.

To help meet that goal, the NIEA is calling for an amendment to NCLB to allow a consortium of tribes, BIA-funded schools, or school boards to apply for a waiver of the definition of AYP under the act.

Under current law, a single tribe, school board or BIA-funded school may apply for a waiver. But Gilbert said that considering the significant amount of time and resources needed to successfully submit an application, very few tribes, if any, have been able to do so on their own.

Gilbert testified, too, that other challenges have prevented tribes from applying for an alternate definition of AYP, including a lack of technical assistance provided to tribes from the Bureau of Indian Education, although it is required to do so by federal law.

In response to recommendations made by the GAO in June, Interior recently launched the Improving Indian Education Initiative in an effort to help BIA school students meet AYP.

Interior officials have also told GAO that they are in the process of working out language for a memorandum of agreement between California state and tribal officials, and said that three tribal groups seeking alternatives were working closely with a contractor to develop proposals.

Gilbert commended Interior for its efforts, but said the NIEA remains concerned about the applicability of state standards to Native children attending BIA schools given the limited opportunities tribes have had in developing education standards.

NIEA is now calling for a stronger relationship between the DOE and Interior, given what officials call a “limited capacity” of the Bureau of Indian Education and the larger pool of expertise in education available at DOE.

The organization specifically recommends that DOE officials serve as technical advisers to the BIE Regional and Education Line Offices when the expertise is not available at the BIE on how to improve academic achievement and in the development of tribal standards and assessments.

For tribes unable to develop their own standards and assessments and must use the state definitions, Gilbert said states should be required to involve tribes located within their boundaries in the development of state plans to allow for the coordination of activities under the different titles of NCLB.

NIEA also seeks stronger emphasis in encouraging states, tribal governments and communities, neighboring areas and the federal government to work together in developing educational standards and related assessments.

Officials with NIEA said they expect Congress to act on their concerns in its next session.