Traditionally, because of students' test scores, educators and the public have associated poverty and certain ethnic minorities with poor school performance. It's called the achievement gap.
A report by the Juneau School District suggests that it may not be so simple.
About three-quarters of Alaska Natives in the Juneau schools perform well on standardized tests - if they don't have learning disabilities and don't come from families that are poor or have low English skills.
Likewise, many students from poor families score well on the tests - as long as they don't have learning disabilities, don't come families with low English skills, and are not Native.
The district's annual accountability report, released last week to the Juneau School Board, broke down test results in a way the district hasn't done before. The results are for last school year.
The report includes summaries of numerous standardized tests, dropout rates, and college-entrance exam scores. It's an annual reminder of what categories of students do well or poorly.
But this time, Phil Loseby, the district's new curriculum coordinator, separated students into more detailed categories.
Of the 3,420 students in grades three to 10 who took standardized tests last school year, 790 were Alaska Native. Between 57 percent and 61 percent of those Native students scored proficient on tests of reading, writing and math.
Those figures are below what the federal government considers acceptable in English, and just above what's acceptable for math, for schoolwide populations and various subgroups.
The scores also are below the Juneau district's averages of 77 percent in reading, 80 percent in writing, and 73 percent in math.
But between 76 percent and 80 percent of Native students scored proficient on English and math tests if they didn't have disabilities, weren't from poor families, and weren't from families with limited skills in English.
In other words, simply being Native wasn't an academic problem, and many Natives are learning in the public schools.
Similarly, Loseby found that between 75 percent and 84 percent of students from poor families scored proficient on tests, as long as they weren't Native, didn't have a learning disability, and weren't from families with limited English skills.
"My thoughts are that being in a position to look so closely at the data and really have a handle on where kids are performing can give us something to celebrate in terms of moving away from stereotypes," said Ronalda Cadiente.
Cadiente, a district administrator, is a co-leader of the district's committee that looks for ways to improve Native academic success.
The Juneau School District compared the proficiency last school year of students in reading, writing and math tests, in combinations of four characteristics: Alaska Native, special education, English language learners, and poverty.
The proficiency rates went down considerably when students belonged to several of the categories, especially if one was special ed. But being Native or being poor, in itself, wasn't associated with low proficiency rates.
Here are some sample results. The word "alone" means students weren't in any of the other three categories.
Alaska Native alone, 286 students
76% were proficient in reading
80% were proficient in writing
76% were proficient in math
Low-income alone, 123 students
84% were proficient in reading
83% were proficient in writing
75% were proficient in math
Spec ed alone, 217 students
42% were proficient in reading
50% were proficient in writing
43% were proficient in math
Alaska Native & spec ed, 47 students
26% were proficient in reading
24% were proficient in writing
26% were proficient in math
Alaska Native, spec ed & low-income, 38 students
16% were proficient in reading
13% were proficient in writing
16% were proficient in math
The school district as a whole
77% were proficient in reading
80% were proficient in writing
73% were proficient in math
The scope of the accountability report is more refined than before, and it allows the district to have clearer targets, Cadiente said.
"I'm encouraged. It makes it more tangible. It's not just statistics and numbers. I think it gets us further along," she said.
On the downside, Loseby's report also shows that there's a lot of overlap among the four studied categories of Alaska Native, low-income, special education, and what's called English language learners.
The last-named refers to students for whom English is a second language, and students from families that are influenced by another language or that don't have a rich use of English.
Children who don't hear a lot of English when they're very young can have trouble distinguishing some of the sounds that make up words, Loseby said. It can affect their ability to speak and read, and to socialize and learn. Adults trying to learn a foreign language face the same problem.
Few of the students who fit into several of the four categories, especially if one of them is special education, are proficient in English and math.
Schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan agreed that the report helps the district home in on specific needs.
But the schools still need to deal with the whole child, she said, and that includes culture. Native students need a curriculum that's relevant to them, she said.
"We definitely need to deal with language issues and spec ed issues, but they're also the students who need to be validated and who have the greatest need to feel school is part of themselves," Cowan said.
"I think embedding the instruction in something that is familiar and validates their identity will help reach the students."
Cowan pointed out that Natives are more likely to be from low-income families, or be in special education, or be categorized as having limited English proficiency, than other ethnicities.
Alaska Natives make up 22 percent of the district's students but they represent 39 percent of the kids in special education, 55 percent of the children who receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 46 percent of children classified as English language learners.
The report also continues to show a dropout rate by Natives that's about twice that of other ethnicities.
Because students who are doing poorly tend to be in several of the four studied categories, the report "suggests that it is actually harder for the schools to meet the needs for the children," said Dave Newton, principal of Auke Bay Elementary.
"What it means is the child is more complex," he said. "The reasons why children aren't succeeding are complex. That means that we as professionals have to have a very deep understanding of each of the categories. We have to blend strategies."
Cinda Stanek, a fifth-grade teacher at Gastineau Elementary, said teachers have known that school often is more difficult for children who fit into several of those categories. The school system has to look at how it contributes to making those factors difficulties for students, she said.
"What are we doing in school that makes a Native child in poverty have a more difficult time? It's not the factor of culture or socioeconomic status. It's the factor of how are we teaching them in school," she said.
Andi Story, a School Board member on the Native success committee, said the report is hopeful.
"Many Native parents have said many of our students are doing quite well. It's nice when research confirms that," Story said.
But the report also shows the School Board's need to tackle issues outside the classroom, such as poverty, poor health, homes that aren't rich in the use of English, and parents who have had bad experiences with the schools because of race, she said.
"As board members, we have to keep taking it a step further in reform. Schools can only do so much," she said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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