Largest Study of American Indian Students Shows Mixed Results

American Indian students have historically scored low on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but the not so terrible news is their scores have held steady since 2015.

The good news is that Alaska Native and American Indian students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) held steady from 2005 to 2015, in contrast to scores for all students, which dipped slightly between 2013 and 2015, according to Jamie Deaton, project director for the National Indian Education Study 2015 (NIES) released March 7.

The bad news is that scores for American Indian students are lower than those for most other racial/ethnic groups, even with the dip, For example, AI/AN fourth-grade readers scored 205, the lowest of any group, compared with 241 for Asians, 232 for whites, and 206 for blacks. At the eighth-grade level, American Indian students scored 252 in reading, compared with 281 for Asians, 274 for whites and 248 for blacks.

But this isn’t really news. American Indian students have scored low on this nationally-administered standardized test of academic achievement ever since 2005, when the government started reporting their scores separately.


The importance of this round of testing, said Deaton, is the number of American Indian students participating. “This is the largest educational study in the nation of AI/AN students and allows for a depth of reporting that prior to this study has been unavailable,” he said. “Over 16,000 AI/AN students participated and that speaks well to the integrity of the results.” The report provides state-level results for 14 states, two more than in 2013.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, Navajo, is co-director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and senior program officer of Tribal College and Universities Early Childhood Education Initiatives at the American Indian College Fund and serves on the technical review panel for the study. “This is the best information we can get on American Indian and Alaska Native students in public and BIE schools,” she said. “This study helps us look longitudinally over time at what’s going on with Native students.”

Since American Indian students experience significant educational risk factors (17 percent are identified as special needs students, and 73 percent of fourth graders and 66 percent of eighth graders are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, for example, and both of those factors are associated with lower school performance), it’s important to collect the best—and most—data possible, said Deaton. But the NAEP itself “is not designed to report on cause and effect. The aim is to collect data and variables that help policymakers and researchers unpack that piece.”

Debora Norris, Navajo, who works with the Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Community Language Department, has served on the technical review panel for the NIES for over 10 years. “This is an extremely important instrument for tribes and communities to get direct feedback from Native American students, from their daily experience in schools, on everything having to do with academics to their accessibility to language and culture in their respective schools,” she said.

For NIES 2015, schools were divided into three mutually-exclusive groups: low-density public schools with an AI/AN student population of less than 25 percent, high-density public schools, with an AI/AN student population of 25 percent or more, and Bureau of Indian Education schools.

Nearly 60 percent of students (59 percent of fourth graders and 57 percent of eighth graders) in the sample attend low-density schools, about a third attend high-density schools, 7 percent are educated in BIE schools and 2 to 3 percent attend private or Department of Defense schools.


American Indian Students and Cultural Knowledge

In grade 4, 61 percent of students in BIE schools reported knowing some or a lot about their cultural history. In grade 8, 83 percent of American Indian students said they knew some or a lot about their tribes. By comparison, 50 percent of fourth graders and 58 percent of eighth graders in low-density schools said they knew some or a lot.

Between 53 percent and 65 percent of students in all educational settings reported learning about their Native cultures from family members. Only between 11 percent and 16 percent of American Indian students said they learned about their cultures from teachers, and at the fourth grade level there was virtually no difference in what they learned from teachers that depended on what kind of school they attend.

American Indian Students and Language

However, at both the fourth and eighth grade levels, American Indian students in BIE schools reported participating in their tribe’s ceremonies and gatherings at much higher rates than did kids in other schools. And 60 percent of fourth graders and 56 percent of eighth graders in BIE schools reported attending Native language class at least once a week, compared with 8 percent and 6 percent respectively of students attending low-density schools and 26 percent and 16 percent of students in high-density schools.



Teachers in BIE schools were much more likely than teachers in other schools to report implementing culturally specific instructional practices for AI/AN students. In BIE schools, 67 percent of teachers of fourth graders reported doing so to a moderate or large extent, compared with 13 percent of teachers in low-density schools and 39 percent of teachers in high-density schools.

About half of the students in BIE schools were taught by AI/AN teachers compared with 3 percent or 4 percent of students in low-density public schools and about a quarter of students in high-density public schools.

Parent Participation

Fifty percent of school administrators in high-density public schools reported that parents of fourth-grade American Indian students visited the school to discuss educational issues with staff and students, compared with 16 percent in low-density schools and 51 percent in BIE schools, but only 41 percent of school administrators in high-density schools reported parents of AI/AN eighth graders came by to discuss education, compared with 71 percent of administrators in BIE schools and 16 percent in low-density public schools.

Achievement Test Scores

Overall, both fourth and eighth grade American Indian students in low-density public schools did better in reading and math on the NAEP than did students in high-density public schools or BIE schools, which had the lowest scores.

Scores by State

The report gives some scores for each of 14 states—Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, with Oklahoma at the top in both reading and math at both grade levels.

Native Participation in the Report

Deaton stressed the NIES 2015 report was created in consultation with many Native American educational leaders, including people from the Office of Indian Education, Kauffman & Associates, Inc., Tribal Tech, LLC and the White House Initiative on AI/AN Native Education. Karen Francis-Begay, Assistant Vice President of Tribal Relations at the University of Arizona, provided overall guidance during the development of the report.

The 2015 National Indian Education Study Technical Review Panel was comprised of Doreen E. Brown, Yup’ik; Robert B. Cook, Oglala Sioux Tribe (Lakota); Steven Andrew Culpepper; Susan C. Faircloth, Coharie Tribe; Rebecca Izzo-Manymules, Navajo Nation; Jeremy MacDonald, Chippewa-Cree/Blackfeet; Jeanette Muskett-Miller, Navajo; Debora Norris, Navajo; Martin J. Reinhardt, Anishinaabe Ojibway (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians); and Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, Navajo.