Over-identification of Native children as needing special education, including speech-language treatment, was a key concern identified in a recently completed study of Native American students in Washington state public schools.
A team of Washington State University researchers affiliated with the Clearinghouse on Native Teaching and Learning conducted the state-funded study, which examined the achievement of Native American students in public schools across the state. Results informed the development of a comprehensive plan to foster educational success of Native students and for closing the "achievement gap" between Native and non-Native students by 2014, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Native voices frequently have been left out of discourse on educational reform. Therefore, a critical component of this research involved providing opportunities for Native community members to express their opinions about their children's educational achievement. More than 2,000 people attended 10 listening sessions held in reservation and urban Indian communities. Researchers also interviewed tribal educators individually to gain a deeper understanding of the educational environment for Native children.
Desire for Success
Native family and community members expressed an overwhelming desire for their children to achieve success in public schools, but perceive that students must choose between learning the dominant culture of public schools and learning their Native culture. Community members, who want to keep Native cultures alive, believe that infusion of local tribal culture and history into public school curricula communicates an important message: Local cultures carry value that can contribute to the education of all students.
The study found that over-identification of Native children as needing special education is due, in part, to the lack of visibility of Native culture in the regular curriculum and in the materials and process of special education assessment. The format associated with standardized testing was seen as incongruent with performance-based assessments typically used to measure learning in many Native communities. For example, learning for Native children often is measured by the ability to perform a task in a real-life situation, not by a classroom task involving only pictures and written words. As a consequence, standardized testing procedures may be unfamiliar to a child and disconnected from daily life and may not, therefore, accurately reflect a child's full potential.
Analysis of quantitative data from three sources (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Common Core Data for Washington State students, and the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) raised important questions about the way in which the "achievement gap" has been conceptualized. Of particular note, only 26% of Washington school districts enrolling Native students had accessible data that could be used to determine that there was an "achievement gap." Perhaps the issue more accurately centers on a "data gap," suggesting a need to change data collection and management processes.
Analysis of quantitative data that is available supported the existence of an "achievement gap" between Native American and Euro-American students. Implications from this limited data set of standardized test scores should be drawn with caution; it was noted, however, that predictive variables associated with higher standardized test scores involved a constellation of school personnel factors, including the percentage of teachers with at least a master's degree and availability of an array of student support services (including speech-language treatment).
Although further research is needed to understand how these specific factors—and their interaction—relate to Native student academic achievement, the presence of particular school personnel suggests the possibility of an "opportunity gap." School districts with more resources, including "highly qualified" and specialized school personnel, are equipped to provide different kinds of learning opportunities for students. The disparity suggests that educators should look for ways to close the "opportunity gap" among school districts while facilitating equitable distribution of resources.
The full research report, "From Where the Sun Rises: Addressing the Educational Achievement of Native Americans in Washington State," is available at Washington State University's Web site.
The results of the study have fostered a relationship between the state and the National Education Association (NEA), which has taken a particular interest in expanding learning opportunities and academic achievement for all students, particularly those from low-income families and from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. C.A.R.E.: Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gaps (NEA, 2007) provides a research-based training framework for school districts that emphasizes student strengths across four themes: culture, abilities, resilience, and effort/motivation. This free resource provides an opportunity for speech-language pathologists, as part of school-community partnership teams, to be involved in creating culturally responsive learning opportunities for students.
The achievement study has provided a focal point for statewide reform efforts to foster educational success for Native students. In recognition of the study's significance, the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs (GOIA) recently honored members of the research team for their contributions to the education of Native American children. In addition, GOIA and the Indian Education Office of the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction will sponsor a summit to focus on follow-up actions and the associated comprehensive plan.
Also contributing to this article were Jason Sievers, a post-doctoral fellow in educational leadership at WSU, and Selena Galaviz, who received her bachelor's degree from the WSU Department of Speech and Hearing and participated in ASHA's 2008 Minority Student Leadership Program.