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In Native schools, hope and fears about Common Core

May 28, 2013 by

By Sarah Butrymowicz

PIÑON, Ariz. — A dozen students had sacrificed their spring break to gather at Arizona’s Star Charter School to prepare for the upcoming state standardized test. On a sunny Thursday morning in March, they sat doing math problems on worksheets or computers instead of surfing the web or playing video games.CommonCore205x300

Nearly 100 percent of the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students who attend the school, located near the southeast corner of the Navajo Nation, are Native American. In 2012, 33 percent of them passed the Arizona standardized math test and 43 percent passed in reading, compared to statewide averages of 65 percent in math and 79 percent in reading. Teachers and administrators are hoping to improve the school’s numbers in 2013 ahead of even harder tests, as Arizona adopts new state standards in English and math.


Two sixth-graders took a short break from the test cramming. They’d been ushered to the school’s conference room to present to a group of adults on Star’s “Farm to School” initiative, where students help grow crops and learn about traditional Native American foods. After introducing themselves in Navajo, the girls talked about how helping to harvest the food reflected their school’s value of service to others.

Star School teacher Thomas Tomas reviews a science experiment with eighth grader Angus Fuson. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)Star School teacher Thomas Tomas reviews a science experiment with eighth-grader Angus Fuson. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

If school co-founder and principal Mark Sorensen had his way, presentations such as this—demonstrating student engagement and understanding of problems—would be the standard for measuring his students’ achievement, not the state tests. “But we recognize that we have to do well on both ends of this thing,” he said.

Schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia are rolling out the Common Core State Standards, which will mean changes to how teachers teach and how students are tested on their knowledge and skills. The standards, unveiled for English and math in 2010, were designed to help schools craft more in-depth curricula. Educators of Native students are waiting to see if the changes will narrow the achievement gap between their students and white children with their emphasis on higher-level thinking, or exacerbate it with exams that take time away from more holistic learning and that aren’t culturally relevant to their students.


“When I look at these core standards and try to decide if I think this really is a step forward or not, the one thing I like is that students are expected to go more in depth,” Sorensen said. “More [worrisome] than the standards themselves is the expectation of kids being judged on how they perform on tests. Talk about something that’s not culturally appropriate.”

Native American students tend to be among the most disadvantaged in the country. Thirty-three percent of Native American students live in poverty, compared to 12 percent of all American students. They start school behind and frequently stay behind; according to numbers published by the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), the Native American high school graduation rate is 69 percent, compared to 78 percent for all students and 83 percent for white students. In 2010, only 12 percent of Native Americans aged 25-34 had earned a bachelor’s degree, below the rates for other racial and ethnic groups. (For whites, the figure was 37 percent.)

The gap between how Native students and white students perform academically is the widest in the country based on test scores, graduation rates and college enrollments. While Hispanic and black students are narrowing the differences between their test scores and those of white students, the gap for Native students, which includes American Indians and Alaska Natives, has stayed constant in reading and widened in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national standardized test.

On NAEP, Native students in suburban schools and in schools where they make up less than a quarter of the student population tend to perform much better than their counterparts in rural settings or the federally run Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools.

“The issues that some of our communities face with alcoholism, suicide, teen pregnancy, and gang violence are the same as other populations, but when you couple that with our extreme isolation … that makes everything even more of a challenge,” said Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the NIEA.

In an effort to accelerate Native American student achievement, the BIE has decided to adopt the new common standards at its 183 schools, despite initial resistance from some tribal leaders. In 2009, the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators passed a resolution urging those designing the standards to include—or allow for the addition of—Native American culture and history. The resolution argued for the right of tribal governments to “develop their own standards.” At a July 2012 BIE forum, Navajo leaders pushed back against the idea that they needed standards designed by non-Native officials.

“We seek more control of our destiny and our Nation through the development of a Navajo education system that preserves our language and culture, while providing a sound core academic content in reading, writing, math and science,” said Rex Lee Jim, vice president of the Navajo Nation, during the forum. “Navajo students are our children…We have the right to have first access to their minds, and we are in a better position to do that than any other group.”

He noted that the Nation has been creating its own curriculum related to “key Navajo standards,” culture, language, history, governance and character.

via In Native schools, hope and fears about new nationwide standards | Hechinger Report.

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