‘Shameful narrative’ about Native students disputed by think tank



The Alaska Policy Forum, a public policy group based in Anchorage, published a series of charts that the group says disproves an “offensive narrative has been circulating that Alaska Native children are to blame for our state’s low reading test scores.”

The narrative the group refers to has been pushed by opinion writer for the Left, Dermot Cole, in some of his recent columns.

“That narrative is not only extremely divisive and offensive – it is untrue,” the policy group wrote on its website.

Across the spectrum of demographics, almost all Alaska students are under-performing their peers in 4th and 8th grade reading scores, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. It doesn’t matter if they are white or Native, they’re almost all doing worse than ever in 4th-grade reading.

The charts show where Alaska students rank, and note that economic status is more of an indicator for how a child will do.

What the charts show is that nearly all students across demographic categories in Alaska are scoring below national norms. The exceptions are 4th and 8th grade Hispanic students, who scored above average in reading in the 4th and 8th grades, and black students, who scored higher in reading in the 4th grade, but lower than average by the 8th grade. White students who qualify for free or reduced lunch (lower income homes) scored slightly above the U.S. average.

Other than that, Alaska students are scoring dead last in 13 of 20 measurements for the 4th grade.

In 2003, Alaska students as a whole scored 10th from the bottom in 4th-grade reading. By 2017, they were the worst readers in the nation.

In 2003, Alaska low-income students were third from the bottom, but by 2017, they sank to the bottom.

Here’s the kicker: In 2003, students who were not from low-income families were 8th from the bottom in reading, and in 2017, they too were at the bottom of the heap.

White students in Alaska, which represent the largest number of students, had nothing to write home about in these scores. They were fourth from the bottom of the barrel in 4th-grade reading:

While Native students also dropped, they did not drop by as much as white students. Their comparison is only with states that have enough Native Americans that allow a comparison to be made, thus the smaller comparison:

“Test scores for Native Alaskan children are indeed disappointing relative to other AmericanIndian/Native students in the U.S. But as these bar charts show, early childhood literacy in Alaska is at crisis proportions across the entire economic and ethnic spectrum,” the organization wrote.

The bar charts compare the NAEP reading scores of all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 2003 and the most recent NAEP scores in 2017. Comparisons are made across a wide variety of data slices including economic status, students with disabilities and ethnicity. A 10-point difference in NAEP test scores indicates roughly a one-school-year difference in student achievement, the policy group wrote.

The group has highlighted Alaska in red, the U.S. average in green, Florida in orange, and Mississippi, which in 2017 scored above Alaska on the NEAP for children who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Alaska students were almost a year behind Mississippi for 4th grade reading.

In all the charts, 2003 scores are on the left side, while 2017 score are on the right. The takeaway is that Native children are not the ones dragging down Alaska’s 4th-grade student performance. There is a greater correlation to socio-economic status in school performance than there is any other measurement.

[Visit the charts at this link.]



  1. Chances are, you are reading this on a digital device. Alaska educators have embraced digital learning, and it may be part, if not the core of the problem.
    I volunteer in the great “Guys Read” program in Fairbanks, North Pole, Salcha, and the local military bases. Aside from the fact that it is great fun to stand and read to 4th graders. And the kids love it. And aside from the fact that we read really fun books. Like really, really fun graphic novels. You know, with explosions, and outer space time travel, or 13 year olds trying to save their sister, but end up getting saved ny the girl next door, it is my impression that reading books, hard copy, analog, on paper books, is just better mental development than digital reading.
    Our minds map the words on a page, we associate ideas and words and their place in space and time better in books than digital devices.
    My apologies to the late Steve Jobs, but Apples marketing to schools may be brilliant, but the results are, in my opinion, dumb. Or I should say, dumbing down.
    Yes, I’ve also volunteered at school with the digital reading program. My scientific conclusion: boring. Really BORING. Stultifying, mindless, and very precise measures of how fast kids read. But come on, a paragraph on bears, and no action? Yikes, mind numbing yikes!
    If you want to help turn around Alaska’s reading scores, face it, we have to do it ourselves. The pros want to, but they are saddled with one size fits all programs that benefit Apple, et al, more than the kids.
    To learn more: https://guysgalsread.org/
    It’s great fun!

  2. Could Alaska’s education industry be running out of excuses for its defective, overpriced product?
    C’mon folks, what do you think would happen if “education” mattered as much as cars, TV’s, cell phones, washing machines, toasters, or any other consumer product that could be targeted for mass recalls and lawsuits because it didn’t work properly and hurt people?
    Yet productive Alaskans knowingly and willingly support an education industry that continues to produce a defective, overpriced product, ruining generations of children by addicting them to dependence on government.
    Until parents realize the difference between “education” and “education industry” and, who knows, maybe take matters into their own hands by supporting one firsthand and letting the other crash, outcomes are guaranteed to get worse.
    Why? Because no incentive exists for the union-management cabal that is Alaska’s education industry to do anything differently!

  3. The state’s so-called “Education System” is really just a government indoctrination system which fails to teach the three R’s; but does an excellent job of sowing neo-Marxists ideology into the heads of little children while demanding ever more increasing funding.

  4. What we spend is inverse to results. We are at the top of the chart on per capita spending. Obviously we achieved diminishing returns and the only way for outcomes to improve is to cut spending.

  5. The NEA and AEA and all of it’s local progeny, are in it for themselves. They say that they represent the students, but that is secondary, or tertiary to their own interests.
    That is not to say that lazy parents with low expectations do not play a huge part in the disfunction of public school education. On a side note, people might be surprised at the number of public school teachers who enroll their own children in private schools, or even home school them. Telling, I think.

    • Steve,
      You make a very valid point.
      I was just speaking with an employee in the Mat Su school district and she told me that she was “home schooled” as a child and thought that if one parent could dedicate to the job that it was better for children with above average intelligence.
      The problem she said was too many children are bored with the pace of learning since teachers are forced to teach to the “middle of the road”.
      Another factor that I see is the over medication of many children in the school district since many teachers do not have the time to deal with students of higher energy levels and as a result many smart active kids get high does of stimulants like Ritalin to “quiet their brains”.
      With homeschooling curriculum, parents can incorporate more hands on programs for kids and outdoor activities that help balance their day.
      Seems like a more natural approach to learning.
      There is a good book by Ben Hewitt of Vermont called “Home Grown” (adventures in parenting off the beaten path)
      I highly recommend it for any parents who are homeschooling or trying to decide if that is a good path for them.

  6. Interesting that the Alaska Policy Forum cloaks its assertion about student achievement for the state as a whole. That does nothing to buttress their claim that all ethnic are responsible for poor student achievement. How about we see test results by school and geographic locations?

      • Ms Marcum, A cursory examination of the PEAKS results reveals a huge under achievement problem in rural mostly native schools. That undermines the Alaska Policy Forum’s core assertion that student underachievement is universal. By the time those measurements are made it is too late to solve learning gaps measured in years. More money will not solve that because it is essentially a family social problem brought about by living in villages that have no economic basis for existence.

  7. I’m not very good with words or numbers, but the article says “A 10-point difference in NAEP test scores indicates roughly a one-school-year difference in student achievement” The pretty picture graph says white kids in Alaska scored 226.4 in 2003 and 223.2 in 2017, a decline of 3.2 points. Meanwhile native kids scored 184.4 in 2003 and 169.5 in 2017, a decline of 14.9 points. The white kids in 2003 scored 42 points higher than the native kids and 53.7 in 2017. Let’s remember that “A 10-point difference in NAEP test scores indicates roughly a one-school-year difference in student achievement” So in 2003 a 4th grade native kid scored a little more than 4 grades behind a 4th grade white kid and in 2017 a 4th grade native kid scored a little more than 5 grades behind a 4th grade white kid.

    Now we can talk about how much money a kids parents have or how much time a kids parents spend with their children teaching them and reading to them, but to simply brush aside the fact that 4th grade native children are testing 4 to 5 grades below 4th grade white children is a problem.

  8. I believe the “problem” with the student test scores lies with the “teachers”, not the students. Native Alaskans are as intelligent (or more so) as any other ethnic group. They also display innate abilities to be more than a “smart” student. Go into the wilderness and see if the “other than Native” students measure up there, on a student to student basis. Not a chance. Alaska Native children possess the same intelligence qualities/quotients as any other group. It’s the “teaching”, by leftist/liberal “teachers” that puts them at a disadvantage, not their intelligence. Fix the “teaching” problem and you fix the testing score simultaneously. Put the blame for the low scores where it belongs, not on the Native students.

    • As usual Ben, you went pretty far into the “wilderness” here with references to intelligence when there was no mention of that either in the article or the comments.

      • Bill,
        The entire article is demeaning to Alaska Native children, in particular.

        I enjoy a “battle of wit”, occasionally. However, being an advocate of fair play, I abhor any contest wherein my opponent is “half armed”. I won’t be responding to your snide remarks again.

        • Well Ben, you should have said what you meant then (specifically what was demeaning?), rather than getting hung up on whether/not they (native kids) are as intelligent as other ethnic groups. I merely pointed out where you traipsed into the “wilderness” and it was truthful, and not snide.

  9. My grandson was homeschooled for his first 8 years and performed 2 – 3 years ahead of his actual grade in every metric. When he decided to go to public school in 9th grade he was not only bored but was astonished at what was being taught. First thing each morning the students watched CNN fake news to start their liberal left indoctrination. Then, he said his teachers often seized every opportunity to bring the message “ moral conservative values bad .. liberal socialist atheist values good. His speech teacher took delight in setting up debates on every Friday that pitted believers in God against the “ more enlightened “ and the teacher always joined in the shaming of the believers. Needless to say my grandson bailed out of the indoctrination cesspool after one semester and continued his homeschooling to graduation. And to think we pay more per student than nearly every other State is mind boggling.

  10. Leave it to old Dermot Cole to sniff out racism and offensive references attributing the Native children for lower reading scores in Alaska. The real problem, I suspect, is more closely related to television, the internet and smart phone usage in rural Alaska. Alcohol is another factor. If the parents stay boozed up, the kids don’t have any supervision or role-modeling. Maybe rural children should be required to read more angry tirades and caustic vitriol from Dermot Cole’s opinion articles. This might get them fired up and brainwashed to sniff-out more racism. Or, it might send them out to Dermot’s favorite package store for a high dose of spirits.

  11. Watching kids grow up in the Bush is no different than kids that grow up in Town. It is always easy to blame the system. Point out all the short comings of the free education system that is provided. Bottom line is simple any kid can achieve Greatness in the Alaska Education System.
    It someone is in the kids corner to say “no”, pat them on the back when needed, and just be there. We as a State need to stop blaming others, and start calling out dead beat parents. That is where this all starts.
    Parental responsibility. Where are the Spiritual Leaders , Governmental Leaders and Native Leaders on challenging Parents to be Parents?

    • When you have Native leaders like
      Byron Mallott hitting up on the young kids for sexual favors, there will be trouble among the youth. By the way, whatever happened to Byron Mallott? Could Dermot Cole please write an article about Byron Mallott and how his actions contribute to the emotional turmoil amongst Alaskan youth?

      • Cole is too chicken to do an article on Byron Mallott. Mallott is Dermot’s kind of guy.

  12. No Dermot Cole supporter here, but please Suzanne, don’t be an echo chamber for someone else’s fake news. “While Native students also dropped, they did not drop by as much as white students” That is incorrect. According to the data you posted comparing 2003 to 2017 NAEP scoring, white students’ score dropped 3.2 points while natives students’ score dropped 14.9 points. Interestingly, if you look closely at the data for white students, you will see that even had they maintained the same score, they would have still dropped as other states improved their scores. When comparisons are made, by not showing the overall 2017 score for Alaska reading for 4th grade, it avoids addressing the truth of the claim. According to the data you present white testers scored 223.2 and native testers scored 169.5. NAEP reported Alaska’s overall score for 4th grade reading in 2017 was 207. So yes, the lower score did impact the higher score. The real question remains: Why are our scores below average when according to published data we spend more per child than any other state?

  13. As long as we continue focusing on the strength of our diversity this should all work itself out.

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