Native American students at schools overseen by the federal Bureau of Indian Education performed significantly worse on national standardized tests in reading and math compared with those in public schools.
The National Indian Education Study released Wednesday found lags in achievement and persistent gaps among Native American students and their peers. There was also a significant disparity among Native American students depending on the type of school they attend, according to the U.S. Department of Education study.
Those in public schools, and particularly those in schools where Native American students represent less than 25 percent of the population, consistently scored higher than their peers who attend schools heavily populated by Native Americans. The most stark contrast was seen among those who attend Bureau of Indian Education schools, which were created to provide quality education to Native Americans.
The bureau oversees 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states, a majority of which are run by tribes. They educate an estimated 44,000 students — less than 10 percent of all Native American children nationwide.
In reading, fourth grade students at Bureau of Indian Education schools scored an average of 181 on a 500 point scale on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — 25 points lower than Native Americans attending public schools. There was a 23 point gap among eighth grade students. Similar gaps were seen in math.
Poverty, less access to resources and difficulty obtaining and retaining teachers to work in tribal areas could be part of the problem, researchers said.
"If I could pinpoint it, I could bottle it and sell it and solve the problem," said Bart Stevens, deputy director of school operations for the Bureau of Indian Education. "It's one that we keep plugging at, and a lot of things that impact our students are not necessarily within our control, as with any school system."
Overall, Native American students are struggling, with more than a third scoring below the basic level in reading and math, according to the study. Those scores have remained basically unchanged since 2005.
"The fact that our American Indian and Alaska Native students have not made any progress since 2005 is alarming and cause for major concern," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The American Indians' scores were similar to those of black and Hispanic students.
Kerry Venegas of the National Indian Education Association said the challenges facing Bureau of Indian Education schools are similar to those in large, urban schools — but exacerbated. On some reservations, unemployment hovers at 70 percent and graduation rates are low.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed his dismay at the situation at a National Press Club luncheon in 2009, in which he described having visited a reservation in Montana where the dropout rate was as high as 65 percent. Teachers told him only one student had graduated from college in the past six years.
"If we can't help those Native American children be successful over the next couple of years, than I think I personally would have failed," Duncan said.
The study also included a look at the integration of Native American culture into education. Forty-three percent of fourth grade students said their teachers did integrate Native American culture and history into class.
The issue of retaining Native American culture is not lost among people like Harold Dusty Bull, 60, vice president of the National Johnson O'Malley Association, a nonprofit educational organization. He recalled how in the 1940s Native American children were sent to government boarding schools where they were stripped of their culture and language.
"It started out with bad history, and I don't think it's ever really overcome it yet," he said.