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Native students show downward test scores, dropout rates and discipline at Montezuma-Cortez

The Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education met Tuesday to discuss the progress of Native American students.
Annual report shows weakness in math and SAT scores, but improvement in Advanced Placement classes

Tribal members expressed disappointment over this year’s test scores when the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education met for over three hours to discuss Native American student progress last month, although declines in dropouts and discipline among tribal students reflected positive change from previous years.

During the district’s annual Indian Policy and Procedures meeting Oct. 26, different facets of education – including academic progress, graduation rates, discipline and student engagement – were discussed as part of a larger conversation about Native American achievement in Cortez schools.

Native American students comprise 27% of the district’s population, according to data from the 2020-2021 school year.

That data was presented with an obvious caveat: the impact of COVID-19 on education.

The Board of Education and other staff present at the meeting were receptive to the dissatisfied remarks and hopeful suggestions proposed by tribal members, and vowed to strengthen ties in an effort to improve education for Indigenous students.

“Let’s get this worked out. I don’t want another year like this,” then-board President Sherri Wright said during the meeting.

She mentioned making multiple yearly visits to Towaoc to discuss education with Ute Mountain Utes, and led conversations at the meeting about improving communication with tribes and garnering more tribal representation on the school board.

A gap in Native American achievement

The district presented performance-based data sourced from the results of four tests: Colorado Measures of Academic Success, district interim assessments, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, and the PSAT and SAT.

The data was also broken down among Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo students.

While all test results indicated a general lag in Native American student performance, CMAS tests proved to be the most comprehensive assessment for measuring growth over time at the elementary and middle school levels.

Last school year, CMAS tests were administered on a smaller scale because of the pandemic. The tests were not administered in the 2019-2020 school year.

Students in Colorado were assessed in third, fifth and seventh grade English language arts; fourth, sixth and eighth grade mathematics; and eighth grade science.

Student participation in 2021 CMAS testing fell dramatically. For example, 76.2% of third grade students statewide took the ELA test in 2021, down from 96.9% in 2019.

The low participation rate can make results less representative of the larger student body.

Fewer Native American students met expectations in elementary reading and writing than in the 2018-2019 school year, the data showed, although the percentage that did was on par with the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years.

Ten percent of Native Americans students met or exceeded expectations on the most recent third and fifth grade CMAS tests, compared with 41% of nontribal students.

For achievement in math, fourth grade CMAS scores showed 10% of RE-1 Native American students met or exceeded expectations, compared with 23% of nontribal students.

Middle school math results showed more downturn. In sixth and eighth grade CMAS tests, 60% of Native American students did not meet benchmarks – up from 39% the previous year. Nontribal students failed to meet math standards 28% of the time in last school year – only a 1 percentage point difference from the 2018-2019 school year.

The number of Native American students meeting or exceeding math standards didn’t demonstrate much fluctuation, though.

Despite the climb in students struggling with math, only 1 percentage point separated the number of students who met or exceeded math benchmarks for both Native American and nontribal student groups in the 2020-2021 school year.

Student data at Montezuma-Cortez was compared with that of academically similar students in Colorado.

Native American students’ growth rate was similar to other students’ in language arts, but fell slightly behind in math, the report said, according to spring 2019 CMAS data.

Local SAT and PSAT results, which indicate whether a student is equipped to pursue higher education, provided a mixed message.

The test results, which offered a comparative look at high school achievement the past few years, indicated that Native American students were less likely to be prepared for college than their nontribal peers.

However, the SAT and PSAT scores also showed that Native American high school students were growing faster than students nationwide in reading and writing, but slower in math.

Ute Mountain Ute tribal members expressed disappointment with the scores and some doubt in their validity because fewer students took tests amid the pandemic. Additionally, they said, Native American students face other hardships that hurt academic performance.

“The report in itself is very minimal for our people. ... It’s bothersome, it really is, because I don't see any achievement – I don't see a progressive progression of what our students can achieve,“ said Selwyn Whiteskunk, vice chair and education liaison of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, at the meeting.

Jim Parr, executive director of Academic Student Services, emphasized that the district wasn’t trying to offend tribes, but merely was presenting data.

Graduation rates are expected to fall for all

For the 2020-2021 school year, graduation rates are projected to be significantly lower for Native and non-Native students – with the graduation rate for all students estimated at 68%, and 57% for Native American students.

Dropout rates among Native American students have continuously fallen the past few years, the report indicated.

In the 2019-2020 school year, Native Americans had a 4.5% dropout rate compared with a 3.1% rate for their nontribal peers.

Preliminary data for this school year showed similar values – 4.1% and 3.3% dropout rates, respectively.

The four-year graduation rate for the 2019-2020 school year showed 80% of all students graduated from the Montezuma-Cortez school district, while only 64% of Native American students did.

Disciplinary actions for Native Americans decline

Across all grade levels, there were sharp decreases in Native American suspensions from previous years.

In RE-1 elementary schools, Native American students represent 29% of students this school year, but they received 21% of suspensions.

In middle schools, Native American students comprise 32% of the student population and received 32% of suspensions — an equal representation but still a downward shift from previous years, the district report said.

Native American students make up 30% of high school classes, but have received 22% of suspensions this year.

Student engagement

Native American students are showing more involvement in some areas of school, while participating less in others.

This year, Native American elementary students were more frequently absent from class.

Native American students had a 17% absence rate at the elementary level, compared with 8% among nontribal students. There was no discrepancy in attendance rate in secondary schools between Native American and other students.

In athletics, Native American students make up 22% of all student athletes at both the middle and high school levels.

This is a decline for middle school athletic involvement, but an increase at the high school level.

Participation in Advanced Placement classes showed improvement.

Native American students comprised 18% of 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement classes, while making up 26% of the 11th and 12th grade student bodies. This is up from the 2019-2020 school year, when only 10% of AP classes were made up of Native American students.

District solutions

In addition to talks of strengthening partnership with tribes at the meeting, the district outlined additional plans for increasing support for Native American students in this year’s report, including staff historical trauma training and hiring paraprofessionals to work exclusively with Native American students.

A Native Parent Advisory Committee Meeting – one of five this school year – was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.