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Published in 1999 in the Navajo Hopi Observer, 17(35),1-2. Reprinted by permission.

Why are Stanford 9 test scores on Navajo and Hopi low?

By Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University, Special to the Observer

The Stanford 9 Achievement Test scores for Arizona schools reported this year by the Arizona Department of Education are about average for the nation. However, the scores for schools on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, which were printed in last week's Observer, are well below average and include some of the lowest scores in the entire state. Why is this so?

Parents can blame the schools for low test scores, teachers can blame the tests and parents, school administrators can blame teachers, and so it can go. In fact, we can blame everyone but ourselves, whether we be parents, teachers, or university professors who teach the teachers. Some of the reasons given by experts for the low test scores include that the tests are culturally biased, what the schools are teaching is irrelevant to the lives of Navajo and Hopi students, the teachers are not properly trained, the schools are under-funded, the schools and communities emphasize athletics over academics, and the students come from low-income homes without reading material.

Certainly if Navajo and Hopi children are going to grow up and herd sheep and grow corn on the Colorado Plateau, the Stanford 9 test is culturally irrelevant to what they need to learn to be successful. However, if they want to get higher paying jobs in tribal government, schools, clinics, hospitals, and businesses, they will need the type of reading, language, and math skills that the Stanford 9 measures. With the large population increases among both the Navajo and Hopi, it is no longer possible for all children to live traditionally off the land.

The curriculum that most of the schools teach Navajo and Hopi children is little different from what is taught in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Gallup. The teachers most often rely on the same textbooks that are sold to schools across the United States. Thus it can be argued that what is being taught in the schools is as culturally irrelevant as the Stanford 9 test. But again, those K-12 textbooks are designed to prepare students for a college or university education, which is required for employment in many jobs today.

Another factor that can lead to low test scores is inexperienced and not well trained teachers. No real knowledge of the particulars of American Indian education, let alone Navajo or Hopi education, is required to get Arizona teacher certification. Even the teachers who get English-as-a-second language endorsements tend to have their training focused on helping Arizona's Spanish-speaking students. In addition, Navajo and Hopi schools tend to have higher rates of teacher turnover, which leads them to recruit inexperienced teachers just out of their university teacher training. Teachers in communities like Flagstaff tend to have both more education and more teaching experience than teachers in rural Arizona.

Many of the schools on the Navajo and Hopi Reservation are not funded particularly well, which hurts them in teacher recruitment and other areas. The reservation public schools lack the property tax base that suburban schools use to supplement the state and federal funds to provide a better education for their students. But, it can also be argued that when some of the Navajo and Hopi schools get extra money, it is used for interscholastic athletics and other non-academic purposes rather than cutting class sizes so teachers can give students more individual attention or supplying teachers with the materials they need to teach.

Many teachers have told me that athletics is what keeps some of their students in school, but I have also been told that as soon as the basketball season is over some of them drop out. Students who stay in school only for sports are not academically motivated and are staying in school for the wrong reasons.

However, the two major studies from the 1980s of Navajo dropouts reported that the major reason they dropped out of high school was because school was "boring." If teachers rely on textbooks that are appropriate nationally for the grade they are teaching, the Stanford 9 reading test scores indicate that many of their students cannot read well enough to fully understand those textbooks, even if those textbooks were interesting-which is often not the case. No wonder that many students find school boring.

A final reason given across the nation for low test scores is poverty. Across the United States, parents who are not well-educated and have low incomes tend to have children who don't do well in school. Some students in Flagstaff and similar towns come to school already knowing how to read because they were read bedtime stories from a very early age.

Many parents of European and Asian ancestry come from "literacy cultures," which have for centuries emphasized the importance of schooling. These parents tend to buy books for their children, take them to their community's library on a regular basis, and in many other ways communicate to their children the importance of reading, writing, and schooling. These parents give their children the personal attention that teachers in large schools can't. In middle and high schools, teachers often see over a hundred different students every day, and the students gain the perception that teachers just "don't care" about them because teachers just don't have the time to give any one of their students much personal attention.

The mission and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools once told Indian parents to leave education to the experts. The whole idea of the mission and BIA boarding schools was to get the children away from the influence of their parents, so it is understandable why Indian parents might think it is the school's responsibility to see that their children get educated. However, the mission and BIA schools had very low academic expectations for Indian students, and the public schools have inherited this history of academic failure.

Thirty years ago it was thought that the new Indian-controlled schools would change things. However, test scores remain low. Many of the Indian-controlled schools teach the same things in the same way as the old schools that were not locally controlled.

Sometimes locally-controlled schools emphasize student self esteem at the expense of getting across to students the effort needed to be academically successful. Teachers, especially in elementary schools, either learn in universities to not give low grades and thus hurt students' self esteem or are pressured to give high grades by parents, whatever the quality of the students' school work. Students need to realize that learning can be fun, but it also requires effort and that it is effort, not just being in school or just turning in assignments, that needs to be praised and rewarded by teachers and parents.

It is extremely hard for any teachers or schools, even if combined with Head Start Programs, to make up for the advantage that children have who come from high literacy homes where children are read to regularly and they see their parents reading books, magazines, and newspapers every day.

While books cost money, many children from low-income homes seem to have plenty of money to buy junk food and rent violent movies on videotapes, so poverty can become an excuse rather than a reason for not giving children the home environment that will help them get higher Stanford 9 test scores.

If one thinks of school as a race, where some children come to school with a head start, such as already knowing how to read, it is clear that those students who don't have that head start will never catch up with the advantaged children unless they run faster-and work harder-than those students in other parts of Arizona who have higher Stanford 9 test scores. The low Stanford 9 test scores do not indicate students are not learning in reservation schools. If they were not learning, the test scores would get lower and lower as the students fell further behind.

While the test scores bounce around from grade to grade, they tend after second grade to show no strong pattern of increase or decrease. Students are learning at the same speed as the Flagstaff students, but they will have to accelerate and run faster than the Flagstaff students to catch up-and most of them do not. Time spent playing basketball or videogames and watching television will not help these students catch up with non-Indian students.

If Navajo and Hopi students are to catch up test-wise with students in Flagstaff and other similar communities, everyone-parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and school board members-will have to make a greater effort. Parents need to show more interest in their students academic skills than their basketball skills. Students need to spend more time reading.

Teachers need to adjust their teaching to the actual level of their students rather than assume they are at grade level, and they need to do more to motivate students and make their classrooms interesting so students will not be bored.

School administrators need to budget money for high interest reading material for classrooms and other teaching supplies. Finally, school board members must remember that some of their most dedicated teachers are the ones that will complain that the school board and the community are not doing enough to emphasize academics.

One thing to be remembered when looking at the Navajo and Hopi test scores is that these are average scores. Some Navajo and Hopi students are testing way above average right now, but there just are not enough of those students to bring up the average of the whole school. These high achieving students also often coast in their classes because they don't have to work very hard to be the best students in class. Of course, if they go off to the university they get a shock when they have to suddenly be in classes with the top students from other schools across the state and nation.

In addition, some of the lowest scores are in the second grade (the lowest grade tested). If students come from Navajo- and Hopi-speaking homes, it is understandable that it will take them awhile to learn English well enough to do well on the Stanford 9.

However, this does not mean those parents should shift to using English in homes. Several studies, including one with Navajo students, showed that students who were brought up more traditionally did as well or better in school than children who were more assimilated into Anglo/mainstream culture. In fact, test scores at Rock Point Community School where much of the teaching was done in Navajo, including reading and writing in Navajo, showed the students there doing better on English language achievement tests than students who were taught all in English in schools at Many Farms and Chinle.

The issue of bilingual and bicultural education is critical because some parents feel that the more educated their children get the less Navajo or Hopi they are. That if their children get a good education, they will lose them. Grandchildren who speak only English will not be able to speak to their grandparents who speak only Navajo or Hopi. The children will leave Northern Arizona to find jobs in far off cities. In this view, schools are finishing up the job the cavalry started in the nineteenth century to "wipe out" Indian cultures.

There is a human tendency to resist when one if forced to do something. Hopi parents were even sent to the army prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for resisting sending their children to school at the turn of the century. I would argue that it is wrong to equate education with White people. The learning taught in schools comes from all over the world. We use Arabic numerals in mathematics, and even the English language has Asian roots.

I originally taught non-Indian students in an Arizona high school thirty years ago, but found the students unruly. I quit and went to work teaching at Chinle Junior High where I found the students to be fairly traditional and well behaved. Where before I could not get my White students to shut up, I could not get my Navajo students to talk.

I was a beginning teacher then, but I was willing to learn and I started taking courses at Navajo Community College (now Dine College), which was then located in Many Farms, to learn about the Navajo. The more I have learned about Indian education, the more I have learned that teachers need to avoid forcing students to choose between the culture of their homes and the culture of their school.

When we teach students to read, write, and do the other things they need to do to score well on the Stanford 9 and other tests, we should have them read and write about their homes, communities, and Navajo and Hopi heritages as well as learn about the wider world. Perhaps in this way we can reduce the resistance to education that can still be found in some homes. A certain amount of this is being done now, but it needs to be done in all classrooms, not just in Indian, Navajo, or Hopi culture classes.

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