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Study of Achievement Gaps Shows Native Gains


July 26, 2009

A study of achievement gap patterns of American Indian and Alaska Native students in 26 states questions common stereotypes about lagging performance among Native students.

REL Northwest, operated by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, analyzed state achievement test scores in reading and math for AI/AN grade 8 students and their non-Native peers between 2003/2004 and 2006/2007. The results indicated that in many states serving large populations of Native students, American Indian and Alaska Native students experienced achievement gains along with their non-Native counterparts.

Although achievement gaps were generally found to persist, AI/AN students were narrowing those gaps. In some states, AI/AN students actually increased their lead over their non-Native peers.

"There's just this common assumption that Native American children perform well below other students; that belief is shared by some Native American educators, as well as non-Native ones," says Principal Investigator Steven Nelson. "But when you look at the patterns of states across the nation, you begin to get this picture that we are making progress: The academic achievement of Native American youth in reading and math is going up and it's going up substantially."

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 provides key provisions that make comparisons of academic proficiency possible and compelling -- particularly for specific subgroups of students.

Nelson notes that this study analyzed state assessments, so student proficiency was measured against each state's standards. That means it's not possible to use the data to compare one state against another. However, Nelson says, "[This study] opens the door to begin to ask the 'why' questions, in a positive light. Something remarkable is happening in some of these states, and we need to find out what's going on and gain lessons we can share with others."

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences and is the first such study to involve a collaboration among eight of the regional educational laboratories across the country.

One in 20 students in the Northwest are identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, as compared to a national rate of 1 in 100. The Northwest states with the highest rates are Alaska with 1 in 4 students and Montana with 1 in 10.


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Ketchikan, Alaska