Test Alienates Native Students

With many school systems struggling financially, federal funding for things like literacy support and cultural sensitivity training is a good thing. But what if schools are singling out Native American students and testing their English proficiency skills to demonstrate that funding is needed?

I just read the transcript of a report by KUOW News, a National Public Radio affiliate in Puget Sound, investigating a controversial English proficiency test given by some school districts in Washington State. A reporter for the station interviewed student Nick Barth, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who was pulled out of class one day last year at Madison Middle School for a surprise test. Barth, a prolific reader, found himself in a room full of Native students being asked questions like “What do you live in?” and having to choose between pictures of a house and a basketball.

Barth and others found the test offensive. According to Barth, some students were so upset they tried to leave the room, but were blocked by security guards.

School officials say the test is needed in order to secure a federal literacy grant. Wendy London, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Support for Seattle Public Schools, told KUOW News that the schools only test students who receive “less than a three or four in reading on the state test.” She didn’t say what the highest score possible was, so I looked it up and found that out of a four-point scale, a four is “advanced,” a three is “proficient,” a two is “basic,” and a one is “below basic.” According to London, about 80% of students taking the proficiency test were deemed “not proficient,” qualifying her school district for $34,000 in funding. The report did not mention if any non-Native students are ever required to take the test.

Last week I blogged about some of the factors that contribute to Native American and Alaska Native students dropping out of school. One of the main reasons students give for dropping out is that they feel unwelcome. A test that singles out Native children to see if they can correctly identify in English that they live in a house and not a basketball seems like it would lead to just that perception. In fact, Bart’s mother says she’s considering changing his race on his school forms so that he isn’t subjected to similar tests in the future. Ironically, London says that the grant money the state is securing through these tests is being used to provide cultural sensitivity training to teachers to help make sure students feel welcome.

One of the sad things about this situation is that everyone involved, from the administrators to the teachers to the students to the parents, has the same goal: for Native students to excel in school. On a personal note, my parents are teachers, and I know the kinds of hoops they jump through to get resources for their students. While I sympathize with how difficult it is for schools to fund programs, the school systems in question must find a better way to go about it. I’d say this situation, in and of its self, should prove to grantors that funding for cultural sensitivity is needed in these schools. And if it’s the federal government that’s requiring the testing, then the schools need to educate the government.

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