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Native Student Proficiency Rates Continue To Lag Behind Non-Native Peers

The achievement gap in K-12 schools between Montana’s American Indian students and their non-Native counterparts has not improved over the past two years. That’s according to preliminary data from a report due to be released by state education officials in late October.

Lona Running Wolf is the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Director of American Indian Student Achievement. She says Native students proficiency rates in reading, math and science, as a whole, did not improve from 2017 to 2019, they have remained largely the same as recent years. Data show proficiency rates for elementary and middle schoolers are typically half that of their non-native peers.

However, Running Wolf says the drop-out rate for high school students did improve.

"Drop-out rate is decreasing from 10.085 percent 8.885 percent. So it’s showing a definite decrease in the dropout rates."

OPI’s chief data officer Michael Sweeney says the data in this year’s report won’t be comparable to previous years’ because the agency has changed its methodology for calculating student racial information. He says this year’s yet-to-be-released American Indian Student Achievement Data report will follow racial data calculating guidelines outlined by the federal government in 2010. 

OPI releases the American Indian Achievement Gap Report every two years, but Running Wolf says the agency will release additional data later this fall from focus group interviews with parents, students, teachers and administrators working in districts serving American Indian students. She explains the preliminary data from that work indicates that trauma and mental health issues are contributing to the current achievement gap.

"Those factors are what should be driving the work we do for all stakeholders, all the way from legislative bills, all the down to classroom actions."

Running Wolf says OPI will utilize information from a broader forthcoming survey of districts service Native students to help education officials develop specific proposals that could help narrow the gap.

Aaron Bolton is Montana Public Radio's Flathead Valley reporter.