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Native Pathways to Education
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Indigenous Education Worldwide

The Educational Achievement of Indian Children




The years 1944, 1945, and 1946 marked an unusual departure in Indian education, for it was during these years that a service-wide evaluation of Indian education was conducted for the Bureau of Indian Affairs by the Department of Education of the University of Chicago. This service-wide evaluation was presented in a monograph entitled How Well Are Indian Children Educated? The monograph was a summary of the results of a three-year program testing the achievement of Indian children in federal, public, and mission schools. This excellent contribution to Indian education was authored by Dr. Shailer Peterson, then of the University of Chicago. The monograph also included chapters by Dr. Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago, and Dr. Willard Beatty, Chief, Branch of Education of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The volume was printed at the Haskell Institute Print Shop, Lawrence, Kansas, in September of 1948.


In order to orient the reader to Indian education and its problems, we quote: 1

The Indian Bureau-wide Testing Project, reported in this monograph, had two main purposes: (1) to examine the progress and achievement that the Indian students had made in various types of educational situations; (2) to examine those factors which were thought to be related to the student's educational development and to uncover any other factors which might prove to be related.

This first chapter becomes, in a sense, a summary of the monograph, for it answers with information gathered from this study many of the questions commonly raised by those interested in Indian education. Moreover, this chapter provides some of the background essential to an understanding of the study and the information that it has revealed.

The following chapters describe in detail the methods by which the test battery was developed, administered and interpreted.

For approximately twelve years, there has been a definite and expressed philosophy directing the program of education in the schools of the United States Indian Service. This is summarized in the introductory statement of the Civil Service examination prepared for the Indian Service teachers. It reads as follows:

The primary objectives of Indian schools are: To give students an understanding and appreciation of their own tribal lore, art, music, and community organization; to teach students through their own participation in school and community government to become constructive citizens of their communities; to aid students in analyzing the economic resources of their reservation and in planning more effective ways of utilizing these resources for the improvement of standards of living; to teach, through actual demonstration, intelligent conservation of natural resources; to give students firsthand experience in housing anal clothing, in subsistence gardening, cooperative marketing, farm mechanics, and whatever other vocational skills are needed to earn a livelihood in the region; to develop better health habits, improve sanitation, and achieve higher standards of diet with a view to prevention of trachoma, tuberculosis, and infant diseases; to give students an understanding of the social and economic world immediately about them and to aid them in achieving some mastery over their environment; and to serve as a community center in meeting the social and economic needs of the community.

Obviously this philosophy has required attention to training Indian children so that they may be able to make a living from the natural resources of their home environment, as well as to make a living away from their reservation. This educational program has not resulted in neglecting the usual type of academic instruction which includes reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, and science. Instead, to these academic subjects has been added emphasis on those skills needed to make the best use of the resources of the environment. These extra skills have included an understanding of desirable health practices, domestic living, and practical training in one or more of a variety of vocational fields, each of which is important not only on the reservation but away from the reservation in both rural and urban localities.

It is evident that education is as important in the life of an Indian as it is in the life of a non-Indian. Many Indian children do not come to school the first day possessing a familiarity with the English language or with much of the background experience which is common to the lives and environment of most white children. Experiences and skills that are taken for granted by the teachers of white children in the kindergarten or first grade cannot be taken for granted by the teachers of Indian children.

One out of every three children from the hills of eastern Oklahoma or from the Dakota Sioux reservations comes with an extremely limited English vocabulary, being accustomed to doing most of his speaking and thinking in his native Indian language. In the Papago country of southern Arizona and throughout the Navaho reservation, the great majority of children who enroll in the federal schools are unable to understand English at all when they enter school. The teachers of such children are therefore confronted with students who have been speaking and thinking in only their native tongue. Among the Pueblos, still another problem presents itself, for here many of the children are trilingual, speaking a little Spanish and a little English mixed with a large proportion of Indian dialect.

The problem of having to teach the student English before he can be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography is peculiar to the Indian Service. Few public schools, other than those located on the Mexican border, have a similar problem. In most public schools, it is the exception if teachers are confronted with a non-English-speaking child. In the Indian Service, some schools rarely have beginning students who know English, and in almost all schools the language problem is ever present.

In federal schools the curricula and teaching methods are necessarily different from those employed in most public schools because of the differences which exist between beginning Indian children and white children. Teachers who have had their training and practice teaching in the environment of the average public school find the problems of the Indian school to be quite different. In-service training programs have been necessary to prepare the new teachers for this new kind of experience. Special summer school training and specially prepared materials have been used to acquaint new teachers with the problems which are not a part of most methodology textbooks.

Those who are uninformed or misinformed about the problems of Indian education are often critical when they learn that Navaho youngsters are a year or two behind the grade level expected of white children of the same age. Those who find Indian Bureau schools devoting a large part of the first year to the acquisition of a useful and functional English vocabulary, consider it strange that the teaching of reading is usually delayed to the second year. Similarly, new Indian Service teachers coming from the public schools at first wonder why it is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not advocate close adherence to those courses of study commonly accepted and advocated for the public schools of the states in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs operates. These new teachers first fear that without these "accepted" courses of study, their students cannot possibly make satisfactory progress.

Those who have directed the Indian schools have watched the results of their specially adopted program of teaching, and have made changes and modifications as they seemed desirable. In the past, however, there has not been a planned evaluation program for obtaining an over-all picture of Indian education through the years. The absence of such information is particularly notable now that data are being gathered about the present status of the educational program. A point of reference for comparison purposes would now be very useful. In 1944, the Chief, Branch of Education, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his associates requested the cooperation of the Department of Education of the University of Chicago, in planning and administering a service-wide evaluation in an endeavor to answer numerous questions which have arisen over the years. The details of this cooperative effort will be described in the following chapters of this monograph. The remainder of this chapter will be .devoted to reporting the results of three years of a carefully conducted evaluation program by listing the questions that have been asked and giving the answers that have so far been obtained.


The scope and comprehensiveness of the testing programs conducted in 1944, 1945, and 1946, is best shown by quoting from Peterson's monograph:2

Indian groups throughout the country differ greatly in their cultural background. Some Indian school children belong to tribes to whom educational opportunities have been available for as long as 150 years, whereas others belong to tribes in which these children are the first generation to whom educational opportunities have been available. Differences also exist as a result of contrasting environments. Many Indian children are bilingual and most of them have rural backgrounds. Since most standardized tests depend upon language-the language of urban life-such tests have limitations. An evaluation of the achievement of Indian children by merely comparing their scores on verbal tests with the scores of white children from urban communities would tell little or nothing concerning the attainment of the Indian children. It had been suggested that one might find relatively little difference between the achievement of Indian children who attend public schools and white children from rural environments, since those who attend public schools come from less isolated environments than do the majority of the Indian children in federal schools. Another factor indicated for study was the difference in environment offered to pupils by different kinds of Indian schools.

Most day school students have no contact with English except during the few hours when they are in school, whereas the students in boarding schools are exposed to English during the entire twenty-four hours of the day. Probably the most important difference in school environment is that which relates to the special curricula provided students in Indian schools. The home environment of most Indian students does not provide them with certain types of training in health practices, rural practices and home economics, which most rural white children receive at home. Because of this, the Indian schools attempt to provide those things which are not always included in the public school curriculum. Moreover the vocational objectives of many of the Indian groups differ from the objectives of other Indian groups or white students to the extent that the curriculum in each school must be adapted to the special needs of its students.

It was decided that certain measuring instruments should be tried experimentally during 1944, the first year of the study. Staff members from the Branch of Education, Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the assistance of staff members of the department of Education of the University of Chicago, analyzed existing tests. Where suitable tests were not available, they constructed tests in those fields of rural life education to which Indian schools devote considerable attention. The selection and preparation of the measuring instruments finally employed, resulted from a consideration of the following:

(1) the immediate and far-reaching purposes of the testing program,

(2) the educational program suited to the needs of students now enrolled in Indian schools,

(3) the level of Indian pupil achievement in tool subjects such as reading, English, arithmetic and penmanship,

(4) the effect that certain differences in educational and home environments (e. g. school attended, language of the parents, etc.) may have had upon the Indian student's achievement,

(5) the available measuring instruments with particular reference to:

(a) their wide age or educational range, thereby making the test suitable for students with widely differing abilities,

(b) reliability or dependability of the measure,

(c) validity for purposes intended,

(d) simplicity of directions,

(e) ease of indicating answers or choices,

(f) simplicity of scoring,

(g) availability of useful norms,

(h) strange or unusual vocabulary,

(6) the assembly of information that will provide a better understanding of Indian students and their families,

(7) the assembly of information which lends itself to a useful, long-range program.

Table II-1 lists the evaluation instruments that were selected or prepared for use in the trial program in 1944. The standardized tests included were selected because it was believed they would meet many of the requirements of the program.

Table II-1

The Iowa Every-Pupil Tests, used in the trial battery of tests, employ a rather complicated system of answering items in order to facilitate mechanical scoring. Such a scheme presented an additional and unnecessary hurdle to Indian children, unfamiliar with this method of response. A review of the difficulties encountered by the students on items in the reading and arithmetic tests in the Iowa battery also revealed that the types of errors seemed to be caused by the fact that the content material was foreign to rural experience, thereby defeating the purposes of the tests. For those two reasons, the Iowa battery was replaced in 1945 by other tests as indicated in Table II-2.

The Indian Bureau tests in Natural Resources and Health and Safety (the Rural Practices Tests) administered experimentally in 1944 proved to contain certain language hurdles. Consequently, these tests were revised in the light of these findings and other tests were prepared for inclusion in the 1945 program. In all of these, there was an effort to minimize the reading skill required for understanding anal responding to each content item.

The pilot study of 1944 was exceedingly helpful in revealing many additional factors which required consideration in this program. The results were based on samples too small to warrant any conclusions concerning the achievement of Indian students.

As indicated in Chapter 1, it was decided that the 1945 program should include all of the eighth grade students in Indian schools, as well as students in a selected group of public and mission schools. The total number of students tested in each type of school was as follows:

1945 Distribution

The test battery was administered in each of the schools by personnel selected by the area superintendent of education. Only persons who had previously had test experience were used in the administration and in 1945 the tests were administered by persons not connected with the schools in which they were given. Table II-2 lists the test battery given to all eighth grade students in the spring of 1945.

All of the papers from this program were scored in the Chicago Office by a group of well-qualified teachers. Reports on the performance of each individual student within a school, together with graphic norm sheets showing the distribution of scores in each type of school and in each region included, were then distributed to the administrators of the schools that participated.

Table II-2

A good many tentative conclusions, discussed in detail in the following chapters, resulted from the data collected and assembled in 1945. In addition, the need for other, specific data became apparent. It was recognized that many questions can be answered only by following the progress of the same students during a period of several years. However, it was decided to extend the student sample to include students in grades four and twelve the following year, in order that differences in relation to grade level could be observed. In 1946, the tests were administered again to students in selected public and mission schools in order that comparative data for rural white children, and for Indian children in public and mission schools might be available. The total number of students tested in each grade and in each type of school was as follows:

1946 Distribution

The standardized tests used in the 1945 program proved sufficiently satisfactory so that all of them were included in the 1946 battery for twelfth grade students. Several of the same tests were administered to fourth graders in 1946. Use of identical test instruments both years made it possible to compare the new data with that collected from the eighth grade students the previous year. This eliminated the necessity of repeating all of the tests at the eighth grade level in 1946. Many of the schools were supplied with all tests for the eighth grade students at their own request, in order that they might collect additional information on the students in their own schools. The 1945 Credit Test was omitted because the number of items in the test was so small that it was decided to include them at a later date as a part of another test. The use of regional tests in resources presented a number of problems which made it seem advisable to incorporate those items which tended to be somewhat general in nature, into the General Resources Test. In this test all items clearly having only regional significance were omitted. The Rural Practices Vocabulary Test was constructed and administered to students in grades eight and twelve. The Gates Advanced Primary Reading Tests were selected for testing the reading achievement of the fourth grade students. The Background Questionnaire was revised to include additional data for study. Table 11-3 lists the tests included in the 1946 battery.

Table II-2

**These principals who wished to do so were permitted to administer these tests to eighth grade students in their own schools.

It was decided that the problems of test administration and scoring would be considerably lessened by the use of a larger number of administrators, and by having the multiple response type test scored in the field. Through the cooperation of area superintendents of Indian education, persons who were well qualified to follow the detailed instructions furnished to them were selected to administer the tests in 1946. In some instances it was recommended that the tests be administered by the classroom teacher. The manual of instructions was prepared in sufficient detail to make the test administration relatively uniform. Area superintendents also arranged for the scoring of all except the Free Writing test. Rechecking indicated that a high degree of grading accuracy was maintained in the field scoring. All of the Free Writing Tests were scored by a small group of teachers who worked under the supervision of one of the staff members from the Chicago Office.

To facilitate a more comprehensive analysis of background data and test results, all of the data collected were coded and entered on punch cards so that machine computations would be possible. Provision has been made to add data to these punch cards from time to time to facilitate growth studies and for making other comparisons.


Having provided the reader with some background information regarding Indian education and its problems as well as the nature of the 1944-45-46 testing programs, we turn our attention now to the purpose of the present report.

The present monograph is concerned with the results of the 1950 Service-Wide Testing Program planned and supervised by L. Madison Coombs, Education Specialist, Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The purpose of the 1950 Service-Wide Testing Program was given in the Manual of Instructions for Test Administration and reads as follows:

As in former years one of the major purposes of the administration of tests to Indian students in the 1950 program is to provide schools with additional information about students that may be useful in the guidance of these students. In keeping with this purpose, tests have been selected, adapted, and constructed with these students in mind. These tests are designed to provide measures of a number of important abilities or aptitudes, special achievements, and interests.

The testing done this spring will, in a sense, complete the cycle begun by the 1946 testing, results of which were published by Dr. Shailer Peterson in the monograph, "How Well Are Indian Children Educated?" Pupils at the fourth and eighth grade levels in 1946 are now, assuming normal progress, at the eighth and twelfth grade levels, respectively, in 1950. A re-testing at these last named grade levels this spring should provide much illuminating data.

As explained on the page titled, "Test Schedule," not all of the tests given to the twelfth grade will be administered to eighth grade students.

This is not an annual all-pupil testing program such as some state departments and school systems have inaugurated. Instead it is an attempt to provide additional information to the schools so that school personnel may have a better basis on which to guide students and to initiate curriculum studies. It is also important that all school personnel understand that the items included in the various tests do not constitute a list of facts or skills that should be mastered by all students in the Indian Schools. These do not, in any sense, constitute an approved course of study. The range of the tests included is wide in order that they may be used at various grade levels and in different types of schools. Criticisms of any of the items in any of the tests will be welcome, for they will be valuable in future revisions of the tests. Neither the quality of instruction in any school nor the efficiency of any teacher will be judged by the results of these tests.

The tests and materials administered in the 1950 testing program and used in this study are shown in Table 1.

Table 1


The 1950 testing program was outlined and administered prior to the completion of a contract between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the University of Kansas. Therefore, consultants from the School of Education at the University of Kansas began advisement at the point of punching and sorting of the information gathered in the 1950 testing program by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The results of this monograph are in a sense, therefore, a post-mortem on the information gathered. This in no way is meant to imply that the testing program was not wisely planned and administered. It is simply to point out the time that the consultants of the University of Kansas entered into the study. The late entry of the University of Kansas consultants made their task somewhat more difficult than it would have been if they had participated in the study from the beginning. In addition, some of the data obtained by administering some of the tests listed in Table 1 were not used in this study. The chief reason for only partial utilization of the data was that some of the tests were measuring abilities that had not been definitely established and explored. In other words, the consultants were not sure just what abilities some of the tests were measuring and whether the tests were doing a good job of measuring the stated abilities.


It was the purpose of this chapter to present a review of the events leading up to the 1950 testing program. The brief discussion of Indian education and the previous evaluations of Indian education should prove of value to the reader in the forthcoming pages. The present study does not depart markedly from the previous studies of Indian education but is rather a continuation and extension of those studies. The entrance of new evaluators to the scene must of necessity change the points of emphasis here and there. Departures from the previous studies were introduced whenever they clarified the issues involved.

1 Shailer Peterson. How Well Are Indian Children Educated? Lawrence, Kansas, Haskell Institute Print Shop, 1948. pp. 9-12.

2 ibid. pp. 20-26.



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