ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Department of Education report shows that American Indian students in Minnesota still face a persistent achievement gap compared to their white peers.
According to a draft report from the MDE, American Indian students test lower in reading and math proficiency, face the lowest graduation rates, have lower attendance records and are removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons at higher rates compared to their white peers. The report pointed to institutional racism, a lack of engagement with adult role models, bullying or feeling unsafe at school and trouble at home as some of the root causes of the disparities.
Since 2015, American Indian students' math proficiency has trended downward. Per the report, under 30% of American Indian students tested in 2018 were proficient in math, according to statewide standards, compared to 35% in 2015, and 67% of white students in 2019.
A higher percentage of American Indian students, about 34%, tested proficiently in reading, but they still lag behind their white peers, 59% of whom tested proficiently.
The report also inspected the disparity between graduation rates in the state. Just over half of American Indian ninth graders graduate from high school in four years, according to 2018 data — the same graduation rate as The Indian School Council reported to the Minnesota state Legislature in 1989, three decades ago. Over 88% of white students graduated from high school in four years per 2018 data, by comparison. That same year, 18% of American Indian students dropped out of school.
Disparities in school attendance are part of the problem, the report said. According to a 2019 student survey, nearly 24% of American Indian students both in fifth and 11th grade said they missed full school days between three and nine times within the past 30 days. By comparison, 16% of white fifth graders and 15% of white 11th graders were absent the same number of days. Nearly 4% of American Indian fifth graders, and 3% of American Indian 11th graders, missed 10 or more full days of school within a month, compared to 2% and 1% of their white peers, respectively.
The reasons why students missed school varied. The most common reason for both American Indian and white fifth graders was illness or appointments. But 17% of American Indian fifth graders said they missed school because they didn't get enough sleep, compared to 9% of their white peers. Sixteen percent of American Indian fifth graders missed their rides or didn't have transportation, compared to 6% of white students. Seven percent of American Indian fifth graders had to take care of a family member or friend. Ten percent said they missed because they felt "very sad, hopeless, anxious, stressed or angry." Four percent said they didn't feel safe at school. Less than 1% said they didn't have a place to shower or wash their clothes.
For American Indian 11th graders, nearly 30% said they didn't get enough sleep. Sixteen percent said they were bored with or disinterested in school. Fourteen percent didn't have transportation. Ten percent had to take care of a family member or friend. Twenty-five percent said they felt "very sad, hopeless, anxious, stressed or angry."
The report said there is "a promise for the future." While transportation is a major reason why students are missing school, the report said other reasons like feelings of anxiety and hopelessness "can be alleviated through meaningful relationships with respectful and culturally-affirming school personnel who inspire students."
The Indian School Council wrote in its 1989 report that "American Indians have been subjected to a unique form of discrimination, one centered not on keeping them apart from society so much as removing them as an identifiable minority through psychological as well as physical means from their Tribes and homelands." The MDE's 2019 report said that schools need to help American Indian students feel welcome.
The MDE's Indigenous Education Task Force is still working to outline ways for the MDE to improve American Indian students' outcomes.