Graduation Rates Dropping Among Native American Students

Kelsey Sheehy

Major gains among black and Latino students pushed the nation's high school graduation rates to near record levels. Native American students, however, are not enjoying the same boom.

Instead, graduation rates for Native American students are sliding backwards, according to "Diplomas Count 2013," an annual report released today by Education Week.

Roughly 51 percent of Native American students in the class of 2010 earned a high school diploma. That's down from 54 percent in 2008, when graduation rates for the group reached its peak.

"What we're dealing with here is a tremendous issue," says RiShawn Biddle, director of communications for the National Indian Education Association. "Native education is in crisis."

Part of the issue stems from American Indian students winding up in schools that are already "dropout factories," Biddle says. Lack of recognition is also a key concern.

"In many ways, our students are invisible," Biddle says. "We're not the largest percentage of the population, so people forget for a moment that we're at the table."

Native American students comprise less than 1 percent of students in the U.S. public school system, but higher concentrations exist in states such as Alaska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana and Oklahoma, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Alaska, where about 20 percent of the total student body is American Indian, the graduation rate for the demographic group was only 42.5 percent in 2010, according to the report.

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Performance in South Dakota is even worse. In 2010, less than one-third of Native American students earned a diploma, the report notes. This student group accounts for about 15 percent of the state's students, according to NCES.

While those figures paint a bleak picture, there are some bright spots. Oklahoma boasts a graduation rate of 63 percent for Native American students - one of the highest in the country - and an overall rate of nearly 74 percent. The Sooner State is home to more tribes than any other state, and about 9 percent of its students are Native American.

"The reason why Oklahoma stands out in many cases is because there is a closer working relationship between the state and tribes," says Biddle. "It's not a perfect relationship, there are issues, but ... tribes such as Cherokee Nation, Osage Nation, Chickasaw Nation [are] all really doing interesting work pulling together academics and culture."

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Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Hawaii and Massachusetts achieved the highest graduation rates for American Indian students in 2010. Those rates range from close to 69 percent in Florida to 64 percent in Kansas. The overall graduation rate in Florida was 72.9 percent, the report states.

"When a state is doing well by Native children, they're also, more than likely, going to work to do well by everyone," Biddel says.

But the declining graduation rates among Native American students are in sharp contrast to the improvement among other minority groups.

Graduation rates among Latino students jumped by more than 5 percentage points for the second year in a row, and rates for black students improved 13.2 percentage points in the past decade. For the class of 2010, roughly 62 and 68 percent of black and Latino students, respectively, earned diplomas nationwide.

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