Learning vs. Average Achievement for Native Students by County

Data from the Educational Opportunity Project provide an unprecedented view of the patterns of educational opportunity for Native American students. For each county and school district in the U.S., the data provide a measure of Native students’ average academic performance in third grade and a measure of average learning rates from third to eighth grade. Average third grade scores reflect educational opportunities students have from birth through grade three; average learning rates reflect educational opportunities provided by schools in late elementary and middle school. The figure above presents these measures for the 462 U.S. counties with sufficient numbers of Native American students to compute them reliably. Two patterns stand out.

First, the test score data from these counties show that Native American students’ performance on state assessments at the end of third grade varies widely across the U.S. In less than a quarter of the counties (103 of 462 counties, shown in green) do Native American students perform near or above the national average, suggesting that they experience adequate educational opportunities from birth through third grade. However, these 103 counties serve relatively few Native American students (shown by the small size of the dots on the graph) and collectively serve only a small fraction of Native American students in the U.S. The majority of the U.S. Native American student population, living in the other 359 counties (shown in blue), have average third grade test scores significantly below the national average. In other words, most Native American students are living in counties where, on average, they enter school having received fewer educational opportunities than the typical U.S. student.

Second, Native American students’ opportunities to learn during school reveal a more promising pattern. In many of the counties where Native American students are scoring below-average in third grade, they are learning at higher-than-average rates from third to eighth grade (these counties are highlighted in light blue on the graph). In Navajo County, Arizona, for example, the average student scores almost three grade levels below the national average in third grade, but learns at a rate 14% faster each year than the average U.S. student. Put another way, over the five years from third to eighth grade, the average Native student in Navajo County learns 5.7 grade levels of material – two thirds of a grade level more than the average student. This signals that, while these students may have had limited access to early educational opportunities, they are receiving substantial opportunities to learn in their late elementary and middle school years. It is important to note, however, that this is not the case everywhere: there are many counties in which Native American students are learning at lower-than-average rates (these counties are shown in dark blue and dark green on the graph).

Data of this sort, detailing local patterns of educational opportunity for Native American students, has never before been available. Paired with the appropriate historical, economic, and social context, such data can help us determine how and where social and education systems can be improved to better serve Native American students and their families. For example, high poverty rates significantly limit access to early educational opportunities, such as quality child care and preschool programs, as well as other health and social resources linked to early academic achievement. Indeed, our data show that Native American family socioeconomic status (SES) is strongly associated with Native American students’ average test scores. In the counties with the lowest average test scores, the average Native American family is much poorer than the average U.S. family. This suggests that significant poverty reduction must be part of any strategy for improving early childhood educational opportunities for Native American students. But that is certainly not the only strategy. More research is needed to understand the many factors that shape Native American students’ educational opportunities and how to best support Native American students in our schools and beyond.

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Suggested Citation: Fahle, E., Reardon, S. F. (2021). Learning rates and average 3rd Grade test scores of Native American students, by county. [Data Discovery by The Educational Opportunity Project]. https://edopportunity.org/discoveries/native-american-students/