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‘Stagnant’ test scores for Native American students

a01_jd_10apr_nativeALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s Native American students have seen no significant gains in math and reading scores over the past decade, in most cases, and their performance remains well below the national average for Native youths, according to new research from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The recently released National Indian Education Study shows the difference is most dramatic for fourth-grade reading: Native American children in the Land of Enchantment were 20 points behind their peers.

“It is not a cliff between the two, but it is a significant difference,” said Jamie Deaton, a National Center for Education Statistics statistician. “I and others certainly want to see that come up.”

In addition, Native American student scores across the nation were relatively flat, statistically, during the study period, 2005 to 2015. New Mexico is up a point or two on a number of the tests, but not enough to make a dramatic dent in the achievement gap.

“It is stagnant,” Deaton said. “We haven’t seen much movement from year to year.”

The study examined fourth- and eighth-grade performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. It was conducted every two years from 2005 through 2011 and then every four years.

NCES researchers provided detailed comparisons across states with high concentrations of Native American students: Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

New Mexico is generally near the bottom of the pack, while Oklahoma consistently comes out on top.

The Land of Enchantment is in particularly dire straits because every ethnic group has low NAEP scores. And New Mexico’s Native American students are notably below their Hispanic or Caucasian peers; in other words, the bottom of the bottom.

For instance, only 10 percent of the state’s Native American kids met proficiency benchmarks for fourth-grade reading in 2015, compared with 17 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of Caucasians.

The gap is similar across the other NAEP exams.

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera

In an emailed statement, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera acknowledged that there is “a lot of room for academic growth and achievement for our American Indian students.”

She highlighted a handful of relatively successful districts: Farmington, Gallup, and Los Lunas posted strong math and reading growth and proficiency among Native American students.

“As an education community we have a responsibility to learn from the districts that are making progress with our American Indian students, and to ensure that best practices are being scaled across New Mexico,” Skandera said. “Only then will New Mexico make dramatic progress on NAEP, our nation’s report card.”

For Daisy Thompson, Albuquerque Public Schools Indian education director, the negative statistics aren’t news.

“We’ve been told that for years – you’re the lowest this and the lowest that,” Thompson said. “I agree with that data, but the question is what are they doing to help us?”

Not all bad

One bright spot for New Mexico: Students have unusually good access to Native American language classes and culturally sensitive coursework, according to a survey administered as part of the NCES study.

APS, for instance, offers Navajo and Zuni, and it is working to add more.

Thompson said this kind of education can be life-changing for Native American youths.

She related the story of a teen who was “on the wrong path” until he took a Zuni language class at his high school. Now the boy is learning from Pueblo elders and taking part in sacred ceremonies.

“Many of the urban kids have lost a connection to who they are,” Thompson said. “We really see self-confidence through identity.”

Skandera also touted students’ “exposure to traditional oral and written languages, history, music, dance, tribal or village government, and current events.”

“We must build upon this momentum, while continuing to highlight areas for statewide growth, to ensure that every child is college and career ready and can choose his or her life path,” she said.

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