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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.

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.

Native American students
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.

“I guess the question is, Are the Bureau-funded schools going to always lag behind the country 10 or 20 years and not join in reform efforts, or are we going to be a part of this?” Jeff Hamley, the BIE’s associate deputy director for performance and accountability, said in response to the critiques. “And that’s sort of what we’re trying to propose … that the Bureau schools join in the national reform movement.”

Native American students
The Star School, a solar- and wind-powered charter elementary school near the southwest corner of Navajo Nation, will have to balance new state standards with teaching Native culture and values. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

In many ways, adopting the common standards is no different for Native American schools than it is for others, said Debora Norris, deputy associate superintendent of Native American education and outreach for the Arizona Department of Education. The standards—and tests based on them—will require students not just to arrive at correct answers, but also to demonstrate what steps they took to reach their conclusions. In English, students will write more and be asked to demonstrate greater critical thinking than in the past. In math, when students learn the basics of addition and subtraction, an emphasis will be placed on understanding the concepts over memorizing the procedures.

If anything, Norris sees greater potential for the 120 schools she oversees to succeed with the Common Core. “While everything’s being changed anyway … let’s start talking about what we really want out of this transition,” she said. “I see it as a really good opportunity to reinvent that discussion about what Native American content and inclusion means.”

Native schools have been working to juggle standards and tested material with culture for decades, following a long history of federally imposed assimilation. Some limited research shows that incorporating Native culture can help improve student achievement, although the data aren’t definitive. For example, one researcher found that Alaska Native students who learned about geometry through a lesson on building a traditional salmon drying rack did better on math tests than those who learned from the regular curriculum.

“A child that feels engaged in the school system, feels like they’re heard, that they’re acknowledged, is going to do better,” said Rose.

At Star, the faculty make a concentrated effort to weave in Navajo culture. To teach the scientific method, for instance, teacher Thomas Tomas relates the four steps of the scientific method— observing, hypothesizing, experimenting and concluding—to the Navajo “wheel of life” in which each compass direction represents a phase of life. For example, the observation stage aligns with east, or birth.

“In every lesson we possibly can, we do cultural infusion,” Tomas said.

The opportunity to learn more about her culture was part of the appeal of the school for Tamyra Harrison, one of the sixth-graders presenting on the “Farm to School” initiative over spring break. “Our culture is fading away fast,” she said. “Most of our tribe is not coming together as we should.”

Arizona law requires that Native American history be taught in public schools. Some districts, like the Piñon Unified School District in the northeastern part of the state, offer separate culture or Native American language classes as electives. But passing down customs sometimes takes a back seat to the curriculum basics—math and reading—and this might be even more the case in coming years.

Some educators have expressed fear that prepping for standardized testing may ramp up with the launch of the Common Core, when states may offer as many as three full-length practice tests a year in addition to the end-of-year exams. On a recent afternoon, students at Piñon Elementary School were working on English literacy skills in their class on Navajo culture.

“We’re so focused on meeting state standards,” said Piñon’s superintendent, Larry Wallen. Teaching culture “sometimes goes by the wayside.”

At Piñon, a tiny district in the heart of Navajo Nation that has to declare “mud days” when rain makes the dirt roads surrounding the tiny town impassible, 97 percent of the 1,335 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. The district faces problems that many high-poverty schools face. School officials said teen pregnancies and drug use are common. Last winter, three high school students were caught with methamphetamines on school grounds.

But Piñon also has unique problems. Because it sits on federal land, the district has no local property taxes to finance its schools. Projected federal budget cuts mean Piñon won’t have enough money to continue operating in six years, according to the superintendent. The number of hours allotted for professional development throughout the year has already been slashed by about 75 percent in recent years.

Despite reduced training, several Piñon teachers are cautiously optimistic, if not outright enthusiastic, about the Common Core. “Our kids tend to be very holistic in their thinking,” Wallen said. “That’s why we’re not actively resisting this whole thing. We believe it’s going to be good for our kids and match their learning styles for the first time.”

The standards are flexible enough for teachers to introduce culture into their classes when they want to, said Chris Ostgaard, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. For instance, the new English standards emphasize reading and analyzing nonfiction texts, but don’t specify what those texts must be. So students might spend more time on the Trail of Tears or the Civil Rights Movement—topics that may engage Native American students more than books about dominant white culture, educators said.

Yet educators worry that even if their students rise to the challenge of the new standards, as teachers expect they will, students’ abilities won’t be captured by the new exams. One concern is that the exams won’t take into account the different life experiences of Native American children living in remote areas like Piñon. Students there win awards in Native singing competitions, but teachers also bring them on field trips to the main campus of Diné College, in part so they can ride an elevator for the first time. Teachers say students have struggled with writing prompts about kids spending a day at the beach or making cookies.

“The standards are great,” Ostgaard said. “It’s the assessment I’m worried about.”

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