In the Spotlight

News & Features
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Red Lake students score lower than other Indian kids on standardized test
Larger view
New data from the Minnesota Department of Education shows Indian students in the Red Lake School District passed the state's Basic Skills Test at a much lower rate than Indians in other school districts. Red Lake school officials say there are no easy explanations for the low test scores. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Statistics show Minnesota's American Indian children typically perform below average on the state's basic skills tests. The most recent scores have people on the Red Lake reservation especially worried. Students there scored significantly lower than Indian students anywhere else in the state. Red Lake School District officials say there are lots of reasons for the poor scores, including geographic isolation, widespread poverty, and a lack of commitment to education by some parents. School officials are now trying to figure out how to move forward.

Red Lake, Minn. — Red Lake students consistently perform poorly on Minnesota Basic Skills Tests. This year, only 22 percent of Red Lake eighth graders passed the reading exam. That's compared to a state average of 81 percent. Math scores are worse. Statewide, 71 percent of eighth grade students passed the math test. At Red Lake, less than eight percent passed.

Tim Vansickle is director of assessments and testing for the Minnesota Department of Education.

"I certainly can't explain what's going on in Red Lake," said Vansickle. "Looking at the data certainly makes one wonder what is going on there. I just know it's different. And it's a lot different than other Native American populations in other places."

Vansickle says he was surprised by new data that compares Indian student scores across the state. It shows a huge gap between Red Lake students' test scores and those of Indians in other school districts. The data shows the pass rate for eighth graders at Red Lake is nearly 40 percent lower than the average pass rate of Indian students in other districts with large Indian populations.

I certainly can't explain what's going on in Red Lake... I just know it's different. And it's a lot different than other Native American populations in other places.
- Tim Vansickle, Minnesota Department of Education

Red Lake school administrators say there's no easy explanation. They've been trying to fix the problem for years. Some say the basic skills test itself is unfair. Lyle Goins is assistant principal at Red Lake Middle School.

"We're being measured by these tests that are designed not with our population in mind," said Goins.

Goins says some of the test questions are Eurocentric and culturally biased. Nearly all the district's students are Ojibwe Indians. He says the tests are unfair to them because many live a very rural, traditional lifestyle -- probably more rural and more traditional than any other American Indian population in the state. Goins says the tests sometimes include references to things Red Lake kids aren't familiar with.

"Maybe a word in a story was 'escalator,'" Goins said. "And many, many of the children had not, had no concept of what is an escalator. And so you try to explain it, 'Well, it's moving stairs.' But they have never experienced that. So because of the geographic remoteness, there are some things that are common throughout literature, that kids here would say, 'Wow! I don't know anything about that.'"

State education officials say they don't believe the tests are to blame. Vansickle says there's an annual review of test questions to avoid bias.

"Is there a possibility that an item or two could get through that might have some problems? There's always that possibility," said Vansickle. "But we try very hard not to have any systematic biases about one group or another."

Larger view
Image Stuart Dejarleit

Red Lake School District officials admit their problems go beyond test scores. They're struggling just to keep kids in school. The drop-out rate last year was four times the state average. This past school year, nearly a third of Red Lake Middle School students were truant.

The problem is worse in the high school. Stuart Dejarleit is Red Lake's superintendent. He says on some days, half of high school students skip school. Dejarleit says much of the blame lies with parents.

"In some of the homes here, the kids are in charge," said Dejarleit. "The kids are running the place, not the parents. Some of the parents just don't really care. It could be alcohol, drugs, it could be a lack of education on the part of the parents. It could be an attitude from the parents that, 'Why? Why do this? We didn't get nothing, so why should my kid do this? You know, he's not going to get nothing.'"

Generations of American Indians are suspicious of institutionalized education. That's because from the late 1800s through the 1950s, many were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. Ken Litzau is the Red Lake district's effectiveness coordinator. Litzau says his own grandfather was traumatized by boarding schools. He was removed from home and didn't see his family for eight years.

"That's the kind of experience that across Indian Country that our people have had," said Litzau. "And so generations of people have had that kind of negative attitude towards our formal education."

Litzau says school administrators have struggled for years to find better ways to reach their kids. They've experimented with a variety of teaching styles, curriculums and classroom programs. None have had a dramatic impact on student achievement. What's more, Litzau says chronic social and economic problems on the reservation make it difficult to attract qualified teachers.

Larger view
Image Ken Litzau

"You know, the high quality teachers really didn't want to come to our schools," he said. "They have all this negative stuff about our kids and our communities, and so they typically don't come to our schools to teach. And so we've got a mish-mash."

Ninety-nine percent of Red Lake students are Indian. But only seven percent of Red Lake's teaching staff is Indian. Officials say that creates a dissonance between students and teachers. They say it's hard for non-Indian teachers to relate to Ojibwe culture and learning styles. Patricia Goodwin is an American Indian teacher at Red Lake. She says the shortage of Indian teachers affects students, too.

"Having Native teachers in the classroom is very important," said Goodwin. "It gives the students role models, something to work towards. They can see that Native people do other things. Not just the drivers, not just the janitorial staff."

Student enrollment is skyrocketing in the Red Lake School District. Enrollment jumped by nearly 300 students in just two years. More Red Lake Band members are moving back to the reservation for jobs and housing. That's putting increased pressure on old school buildings.

Larger view
Image Patricia Goodwin

The district asked for $33 million in state bonding dollars to complete high school renovations and build a new middle school. School officials say there's a misconception among some lawmakers the Red Lake School District gets money from tribal government or shares casino profits. They say that's not true. Ken Litzau says a new school will help solve some of Red Lake's education problems.

"We really need that facility," Litzau said. "When we get that new building, we're going to see some changes, significant changes in attendance, in terms of getting our test scores up, you know, because they're going to have some quality spaces for them to learn in.

It's unlikely Red Lake will get its funding from the Legislature this year. Lawmakers have so far been unable to agree on an agenda for a special session.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects