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American Indian Students The Country's Least Served, Officials Say

ILEANA MORALES   06/17/10 09:27 PM ET   AP

Native American Education

WASHINGTON — Indian students face fewer chances for academic success under education standards that don't embrace their traditional cultures, lawmakers and witnesses said Thursday during a Senate hearing considering revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act.

In 2001 Congress passed the law, a hallmark of the Bush administration, requiring states to test students yearly in reading and math from grades three through eight, and once in high school. Scores are tied to school and district evaluations. Teachers widely criticize the law for its funding being disproportionate to its standards.

Federal education standards complicated by varying state tests do not recognize tribal culture, which unfairly challenges Indian students, according to testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Among statistics cited at the hearing: About 50 percent of Indian students graduate from high school, compared to more than three-fourths of white students.

Mariah Bowers, a Southern Oregon University sophomore from the Yurok Tribe, said she struggled in public schools with standardized testing. Isolation and misunderstanding of the material grew worse with time, she said, and she nearly flunked out of ninth grade before leaving for a school on the Yurok Reservation in Northern California.

Suddenly, she thrived. Math, science and history became easier to understand when related to her culture. She used her geometry skills to create Indian baskets with roots and plants collected by the Klamath River.

"I became more motivated to be more of those statistics of those kids who go to college," Bowers said via live video testimony.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, said the No Child Left Behind Act had failed Indian students. Charles Rose, general counsel at the Education Department, said that American Indian and Alaska Native students are the country's least served.

Tribal leaders consulting with the Education Department said they need to collaborate with states for more flexibility in schools. Rose said they also recommend language immersion programs and better recruiting for Native American teachers in rural areas.

Indian fourth-graders scored 11 points lower in math than their peers in 2007. By eighth grade, the gap in public schools grew to 17 points. The federal law succeeded only in exposing the disadvantages of poor and minority students against whites, Rose said.

The Bureau of Indian Education funds 183 schools for 42,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children on 64 reservations in 23 states. More than 90 percent of the Indian student population attends public schools.

The bureau's director, Keith Moore, said he hopes a redrafted education bill would allow tribes to develop their own standard for all schools funded through the bureau.

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Filed by Leah Finnegan  |