PROVIDENCE — When he entered Chariho Middle School in sixth grade in the early 1990s, Mack H. Scott III noticed that there weren’t many students who looked like him.
Scott, who is Narragansett Indian and African-American, also noticed that many of those who did look like him were on the vocational-technical track rather than the college track.
Still, Scott was surprised when he and his mother went to their first parent-teacher conference and his homeroom teacher told them Scott wasn’t college material. “This teacher brazenly, nonchalantly, without considering the ramifications, told my mother that I wasn’t going to go to college,” he recalled.
They disagreed with the teacher, to say the least. And Scott, who graduated from Chariho High School in 1997, not only ended up going to college – graduating from the University of Rhode Island with an education degree in 2002 – he went on to earn a master’s degree in history from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in history from Kansas State University.
So Scott, who is writing a book on the history of Rhode Island’s Native population, has some ideas about what’s behind newly released standardized test scores that show American Indian and Alaska Native students in Rhode Island have proficiency rates comparable to those of homeless students – and far behind those of their white classmates.
On Rhode Island’s most-recent RICAS test, 12.3 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students met or exceeded expectations for English language arts and just 5.1 percent met or exceeded expectations for math.
That was comparable to the 12.1 percent of the homeless students who met or exceeded expectations for English language arts. It trailed the 18.1 proficiency rate for Black or African-American students, and it lagged far behind the 43.6 percent proficiency rate for white students, according to Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) scores for 2020-2021.
Certainly, the pandemic produced a dramatic plunge in test scores for Rhode Island students across the board. But the low test scores for Indigenous students are nothing new, although they are often overlooked in the discussion about school achievement gaps.
On the 2018-2019 RICAS scores, 17.9 percent American Indian or Alaska Native students were proficient in English language arts, while 14.4 percent were proficient in math.
That was comparable to the 19 percent of homeless students who were considered proficient in English language arts and 8.7 percent in math. That trailed the 22.3 percent and 13.2 percent proficiency rates for Black and African-American students. And again, that was far behind the 48.7 percent and 38.4 percent proficiency rates for white students.
Perceptions and expectations
Scott said the test scores likely result from a variety of factors, including perceptions and expectations.
“Perception is not benign,” he said. “It doesn’t just say that some students should take certain classes – it says certain people have a certain role in society.”
So even though Indigenous students are posting dramatically low test scores, the alarm bells are not ringing throughout Rhode Island because those students aren’t perceived as needing to excel in school given their expected roles in society, he said.
At Chariho, Scott said, the perception seemed to be that many Native students would go on to become carpenters, building homes or fixing roofs, or perhaps land a job at an American Indian casino in neighboring Connecticut.
Scott suspects another factor behind the low test scores is the lack of diversity among teachers. He could recall only one teacher of color at Chariho, and he said studies have shown teachers of color can boost the performance of students of color.
But the larger issue is expectation, Scott said.
When he taught school in Petersburg, Virginia, most students in the economically depressed area were Black, and a survey showed many wanted to be rappers, basketball players, or entertainers because that is what they saw people like them doing. Their backup plan was to work at a Walmart distribution center in the area. Few expected to be teachers, doctors, or nurses, he said.
“Example plays a huge part in what you can imagine being, especially at those young and impressionable ages,” Scott said. “It clouds your perception and your horizon and what you believe you can do.”
What does RICAS really measure?
Scott also questioned the validity of such test results, saying that too often standardized tests fail to accurately measure the ability of students and, in some cases, reflect the unconscious bias of those administering the tests.
For example, he said his daughter tried to get into a gifted-and-talented program at her school, but she was denied despite having straight “A”s and teacher recommendations. The obstacle was a test score. But he advocated for her, just as his mother had advocated for him, and she was admitted.
The Rhode Island Department of Education offered no explanation for the low test scores for American Indian and Alaska Native students.
“The data do not indicate any particular reason,” RIDE communications director Victor Morente said. He noted that test scores for all racial and ethnic groups fell during the pandemic, and he said national data show COVID-19 rates were particularly high among Indigenous groups.
But test scores among Indigenous groups have been low for years. Morente said, “That speaks to the focus on equity and accelerated learning” found in the Learning, Equity & Accelerated Pathways (LEAP) Task Force report that RIDE released earlier this year. And he said it highlights the need for school districts to come up with plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funding to help groups such as the Indigenous students.
Randy Noka, who served as a Narragansett Tribal Council member from 1996 to 2016, said the test scores do not indicate that Indigenous students lack aptitude. “Those numbers in no way indicate the abilities of our people,” he said.
Rather, those test scores represent “a reflection on society and perhaps how they are teaching what they are teaching,” Noka said. “I think it’s the system that’s failing them.”
A clearer look at history could help
One thing that needs to change, Noka said, is what history books teach about Indigenous people such as the Narragansett Tribe. When he was in school, the history books didn’t include much about Native people, he said. “What was in there, typically, was that we were the bad guys, we were the savages. The history books were tainted with mistruths and lies.”
Noka called for changing the curriculum to include an unblinking look at the history of Indigenous people in Rhode Island and around the United States, including Rhode Island’s move to “detribalize” the Narragansett Tribe in 1880 and events such as “The Trail of Tears.”
A fellow Narragansett Tribe member, Wayne Everett, said Indigenous students are turned off by history lessons that don’t reflect the reality of Indigenous people. Everett, who graduated from South Kingstown High School in 1989, said he was taught that Narragansett Indian Tribe was “extinct” when he knew that wasn’t true.
Everett said the latest test scores are “alarming.” But he said they’re not all that surprising because “we are not expanding on our cultural knowledge and understanding and not speaking the truth from all narratives.”
Noka said Indigenous students are scattered throughout the state and often find themselves in a small minority in classrooms. They often face the challenge of being looked down upon by some fellow students and even some teachers, he said.
Noka, who graduated from Chariho High School in 1975, said it also would help to have more Indigenous teachers or to have a school run by Native people. “That gives the kids something that they can readily identify with,” he said.
Noka urged state education officials to reach out to Indigenous educators and leaders to try to find solutions. “There is something dreadfully wrong if the numbers are getting even worse,” he said. “They should be sounding off an alarm. Something is wrong.”
Cristina Cabrera, a Pocasset Wampanoag on the steering committee of Native Green, an Indigenous activism and organizing group, said she’d like to see a school run by Indigenous teachers and an overhaul of public school curriculum and hiring practices guided by the Narragansett Tribe.
“There needs to be an understanding and recognition of the tribal nation here in what is now called Rhode Island,” she said. “Right now, there is a constant attempt to erase, to suppress, to silence.”
Improve ‘cultural competency’
Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I., is an educator who taught for more than 12 years in the Newport school system, and from 2003 to 2010 she ran the Nuweetooun (Narragansett for “Our Home”) School, which served Indigenous children but was open to all.
Spears said the museum works to improve the “cultural competency” of teachers in Rhode Island. Too often, teachers only address Indigenous history when Native American Heritage Month rolls around in November, but it’s important to integrate Native history and culture across the curriculum, she said. For example, she said, a lesson about space could include the first Native American astronaut, John Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
Spears said Indigenous students can face a disproportionate level of school discipline. Too often, she said, Native students are suspended from school for subjective matters such as disrespect, and that can feed the “school to prison pipeline,” which the American Civil Liberties Union has identified as “a governmental pattern of pushing students, usually racial minorities, out of school and into the criminal justice system.”
Spears speaks from personal experience: When her son was 5, he accidentally brought his father’s fishing knife onto a school bus in his backpack. When he realized he had the knife, he told an adult, but he ended up getting suspended anyway, she said.
“The system of education is really set up for Indigenous children to fail,” Spears said. “Often, our children are written off. They are told that they cannot succeed based on the individual person who is the gatekeeper. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here.”
But sometimes, those prophesies don’t come true.
Scott, who was told he wasn’t college material in sixth grade, is now a visiting professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
While at URI, he returned to Chariho Middle School as a student teacher, and during a faculty meeting he saw his old homeroom teacher.
“I was there, doing the same thing she was doing, and she had said I would never be there, that I wasn’t college material,” Scott said. “I felt vindicated in that moment.”