ERIC Identifier: ED459039
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Fox, Sandra J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
American Indian/Alaska Native Education and Standards-Based
Reform. ERIC Digest.
Increasingly, schools serving American Indian/Alaska Native students are
being affected by state and federal standards-based reform. New content
standards delineate more challenging curricula, while new performance standards
outline how well students must learn the content, and new assessments measure
their learning. But students are not the only ones held accountable. Schools,
too, are accountable for student performance. This Digest summarizes both
potential benefits of standards-based reform and areas of concern for schools
serving Indian students.
The new content standards hold promise
for Indian education for several reasons. First, they may help create a more
common curriculum among schools within states and clearer learning expectations
across states. This could prove helpful to Indian educators in meeting the needs
of the many students who transfer between schools. For example, Bureau of Indian
Affairs schools have chosen to adopt the content standards of their individual
states, thus providing a curriculum that has more in common with nearby public
schools. Second, because the content standards drive the curriculum, educators,
parents, and students can refer to them to provide increased focus for teaching
and learning. Third, new content standards may help improve the quality of
instruction for Indian students. The constructivist approach promoted by
national and most state content standards allows for a more holistic, real-life,
active-learning sort of pedagogy, which is more consistent with traditional
American Indian ways of teaching and learning (Estrin & Nelson-Barber, 1995;
Fox & LaFontaine, 1995).
The development of new content and performance standards in the various
states has also created an opportunity for Indian educators to provide input
about their appropriateness for Indian students, although this opportunity has
varied from state to state (Fox, 2000). For example, North Dakota and Minnesota
reached out to Indian communities for input into standards and outcomes
development. Further, some states have allowed for the development of local
standards as long as they are as stringent as state-developed standards. In
these cases, Indian schools have had the opportunity to develop local standards
that infuse Indian cultural and other locally defined outcomes. The Bureau of
Indian Affairs has provided a set of Indian content standards for the various
academic areas to aid efforts to infuse Indian culture into new standards-based
curricula (ORBIS Associates, 1998). Schools can adapt these Indian standards and
localize them for their own use. At its best, the development of standards can
become a continuous improvement process, seeking input from all stakeholders,
influencing state standards, and developing local standards. In many states,
however, there has been little or no input into the development or review of
standards by Indian people.
Along with the potential benefits come some possible concerns. Educators and
parents will need to determine whether or not Indian students are receiving
instruction that is aligned with the new standards and rigorous enough to allow
students a good shot at reaching the standards. Equally important in states
where there was little or no Indian input into the standards, the question of
"whose standards are they?," if left unanswered, will hinder progress in schools
serving Indian students. In such cases, the standards may, in fact, be
inappropriate for American Indian/Alaska Native students (Fox, 2000).
Standards-based reform emphasizes testing
what is taught, which entails aligning content standards with new assessments.
The development of new standards and tests could be helpful to Indian education,
especially in states where the content more closely reflects topics relevant to
local students, including Indian students. Some states provide the opportunity
for Indian educators to influence the development of statewide tests by checking
for appropriateness and eliminating (or at least reducing) any cultural bias
(Fox, 2000). Indian educators can further reduce bias by monitoring national
tests for items that use terminology foreign to Native students' experiences and
suggesting that such items be eliminated.
Standards-based reform can foster less reliance on single tests for decisions
about student placement, instead requiring multiple measures,
criterion-referenced tests, more performance-based assessments, and
accommodations for students with limited proficiency in English. These are major
breakthroughs for Indian education. Performance-based assessment, especially,
can assist in providing student evaluations that contain less cultural bias
(FairTest, 1995), and it is a more culturally acceptable way to evaluate the
production of tasks (Bordeaux, 1995). The Bureau of Indian Affairs has
implemented the Learning Record, a valid and reliable performance-based
assessment system that originated in London, England. Teachers trained in its
use demonstrate increased use of research-based teaching strategies. Further,
students demonstrate improved attitudes about their ability to learn, and parent
interest and involvement in their children's education have increased (Fox,
However, the potential of these improved assessment systems has gone
unrealized in many quarters. For example, the fact that most states continue to
use multiple-choice tests is a disappointment for Indian education.
Standardized, norm-referenced, and multiple-choice tests are thought by some to
be culturally biased; if so, Indian students assessed using these tests may be
placed at an automatic disadvantage (Bordeaux, 1995). It could be argued that
tests that are "normed" based on mainstream student populations and a normal
curve will tend, by their very nature, to mismeasure Indian students' learning.
Further, research shows that performance on standardized, norm-referenced tests
is highly correlated with socioeconomic status (FairTest, 1995), and many Indian
children live in poverty.
A report from the Center on Education Policy warns that tests serving
"important collective educational goals can sometimes produce negative
consequences for individuals" (2001, p. 28). The Commission on Instructionally
Supportive Assessment recommends that 'the results of a single test should
[never] be used to make significant decisions that affect schools or students
(2001, p. 11). The use of inadequate testing measures as a basis for decisions
about promotion or graduation may prove extremely harmful to Indian students.
States that have not involved Indian educators in the development of
standards-based assessments are most at risk of mismeasuring Indian student
achievement. Another assessment-related concern is that schools might spend too
much time preparing students to take standardized tests instead of providing
high-quality educational experiences and appropriate diagnostic testing for
Indian students (Fox, 2000).
The fact that schools will be held
accountable for students' learning is a plus for Indian education because Indian
people, like other citizens, want their children to learn more. States and
districts are required to disaggregate data to ensure that all groups of
students are making gains. If the disaggregated data show that students or
groups of students are falling behind or making insufficient progress,
accountability policies may require schools to be closed, reconstituted, or have
Unfortunately, students in these schools may not be promoted or graduate if
they do not score at required levels on the new tests. Some observers recommend
that accountability be based on student and school gains, not on direct
comparisons with other students and other schools, especially if there is a
difference in socioeconomic status or English language proficiency among the
students or schools being compared. A recent Department of Education study
indicated that students who enter school from high poverty areas, including
American Indian reservations, have 3,000-word English vocabularies; their
affluent peers enter school with 20,000-word vocabularies (U.S. Department of
Education, 1999). The students with 20,000-word vocabularies have a much easier
time learning the standard curriculum and performing well on standardized
achievement tests. Lawsuits have been filed to address unfair testing practices
in some states, particularly when students are not allowed to graduate
Thus far the idea of accountability has been applied primarily to students
and schools; however, ultimately all stakeholders must be accountable if
standards-based reform is to realize its potential for Indian students. By
providing the resources and technical assistance low-performing schools need to
reach high standards, federal and state governments play a crucial role. Their
efforts will be more effective if they are guided by four recommendations put
forward by the Indian Nations At Risk Task Force (1991): (1) Incorporate
language and culture to help strengthen students' ability to speak their Native
languages and English and to assist in making instruction more relevant; (2)
encourage and build community and parental involvement; (3) provide instruction
that is appropriate for Indian students, addressing learning styles and student
interests; and (4) employ testing that is appropriate for Indian students.
Cornell Pewewardy (1998), writing in "Cultural Survival Quarterly," states,
"All of the restructuring in the world will be of no benefit to children if the
philosophy, theory, assumptions, and definitions are flawed or invalid.
Indigenous educators and parents know the problems and their causes" (p. 30).
Indian educators must have the latitude to try what they think will improve
States and schools must make Indian parents aware of school reform and the
implications for their children. There must be a greater effort to reach out to
Indian parents to explain the school reform process to them and to gain their
support if it is to work for Indian students. Indian parents must understand it,
be ready to respond to it, participate in it, demand the good parts of it, and
protect their children from abuse that might come from it (Fox, 2000).
The standards-based school reform movement in
this country provides potential benefits for Indian education and areas of
concern. Standards-based reform may provide an impetus to improve Indian
education. New standards that promote a holistic approach to teaching and new
criterion-referenced and performance-based methods of assessment offer hope.
Funding for research and development to create Indian models of school reform
can also help make this reform movement meaningful for Indian students. For
example, the Department of Education recently awarded a grant to the National
Indian School Board Association to create an Indian model of school reform for
use with schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Other opportunities may
arise. Indian educators, parents, and others who advocate for Indian children,
however, must be alert to recognize if standards and assessments are not
appropriate for Indian students, if students are unfairly compared, if students
do not receive the necessary assistance to reach standards, and if their schools
do not receive the necessary financial and technical assistance to improve.
Bordeaux, R. (1995). Assessment for American
Indian and Alaska Native learners. ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 385 424)
Center on Education Policy. (2001). It takes more than testing: Closing the
achievement gap. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved October 16, 2001, from
Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment. (2001). Building tests
to support instruction and accountability: A guide for policymakers. Washington,
DC: National Education Association.
Estrin, E. T., & Nelson-Barber, S. (1995). Bringing Native American
perspectives to mathematics and science teaching. Theory Into Practice, 34(3),
FairTest. (1995). Implementing performance assessments: A guide to classroom,
school and system reform. Cambridge, MA: National Center for Fair and Open
FairTest. (1999). Newsletter articles of FairTest: The National Center for
Fair & Open Testing. FairTest Examiner, 13(4), 1-8.
Fox, S., & LaFontaine, V. (1995). A whole language approach to the
communication skills. In H. Gilliland (Ed.), Teaching the Native American (third
edition). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Fox, S. (2000, May). Standards-based reform and American Indian/Alaska Native
education. Paper presented at the American Indian/Alaska Native Research Agenda
Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Indian Nations At Risk Task Force. (1991). Indian Nations at risk: An
educational strategy for action. Final report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 339 587)
ORBIS Associates. (1998). American Indian standards for Arts education.
Washington, DC: Bureau of Indian Affairs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 420 478)
Pewewardy, C. (1998). Our children can't wait: Recapturing the essence of
indigenous schools in the United States. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 22(1),
U.S. Department of Education. (1999). Start early, finish strong: How to help
every child become a reader. Washington, DC: America Reads Challenge. Retrieved
October 16, 2001, from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/startearly/