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Status and Trends in the Education of American Indians and Alaska Natives: 2008

NCES 2008-084
September 2008


This report examines current conditions and recent trends in the education of American Indians/ Alaska Natives using statistical measures. It presents a selection of indicators that illustrate the educational achievement and attainment of American Indians/Alaska Natives. Over the past few decades, American Indians/Alaska Natives have made gains in key education areas, such as increased educational attainment. However, gaps in academic performance between American Indian/Alaska Native and other students remain.

Organization of the Report and Data Sources

This report is organized into the following four chapters containing a total of seven indicators: Chapter I: Demographic Overview; Chapter II: Preprimary, Elementary, and Secondary Education; Chapter III: Postsecondary Education; and Chapter IV: Outcomes of Education. References of works cited appear at the end of the report.

The indicators in this report present data from a variety of sources. These sources are described in appendix B. Most of these sources are federal surveys and many are conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The majority of the sources are sample surveys. The standard errors for the estimates from sample surveys are provided on the NCES website Some sources provide universe data, meaning that they collect information on the entire population of interest, and therefore no standard errors are reported.

Sample Surveys

  • Early Childhood Longitudinal Study
  • Education Longitudinal Study of 2002
  • High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores
  • National Assessment of Educational Progress
  • National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988
  • National Postsecondary Student Aid Study Universe Surveys

Universe Surveys

  • Common Core of Data, Public Elementary/ Secondary School Universe Survey
  • Higher Education General Information Survey
  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System
  • Private School Universe Survey

In addition to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, this report draws from other federal agencies and other organizations, including:

  • American College Testing Program (ACT): ACT—universe survey
  • College Board. Advanced Placement Program and SAT—universe surveys
  • U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau: Census 1990 and 2000—universe surveys; American Community Survey (ACS) and Current Population Surveys (CPS)— sample surveys
  • U.S. Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights, Elementary and Secondary School Survey—sample survey; and Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)—universe survey
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): National Vital Statistics System—universe survey; National Immunization Program and Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System—sample survey
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Office of Applied Studies, National Survey on Drug Use and Health—sample survey
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)2 —universe survey

Definitions of Race and Ethnicity

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for the standards that govern the categories used to collect and present federal data on race and ethnicity. The OMB revised the guidelines on racial/ ethnic categories used by the federal government in October 1997 (Office of Management and Budget 1997). Racial/ethnic categories are self-identified. The revised standards require a minimum of these five categories for data on race: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. In addition, the category "more than one race" (respondents could select one or more race categories) was introduced in the 2000 Census and was used in the Current Population Surveys (CPS) (beginning in 2003) collected by the Census Bureau.

It should be noted that White, Black, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native are considered races. This report presents a few indicators using data in which the category "more than one race" was available. In these indicators, the term "alone" (e.g., American Indian/ Alaska Native alone) represents data for respondents who selected a single race category, and the term "in combination with one or more other races" represents data for respondents who selected more than one race category. Where possible, indicators present data on the "more than one race" category; however, in some cases this category may not be separately shown, due to various data issues. For indicators where the "more than one race" option was not available, the race category represents respondents who selected one race category.

The standards also require the collection of data on the ethnicity categories Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. It is important to note that Hispanic origin is an ethnicity rather than a race, and therefore persons of Hispanic ethnicity may be of any race. Ethnicity can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.

Race categories presented in this report exclude those persons of Hispanic ethnicity (who are presented as a separate category), unless otherwise noted. Tables and figures in indicators with race categories that include those identifying themselves as Hispanic are noted explicitly. In these instances, the race/ethnicity categories are not mutually exclusive, meaning that data shown by race include persons of Hispanic and non-Hispanic origin, and data for Hispanic origin include persons of any race. These indicators include selected tables and figures for Indicator 1.1, Indicator 1.2, Indicator 1.3, Indicator 1.4, Indicator 1.5, Indicator 1.6, and Indicator 1.8.

Within this report, some of the category names have been shortened. American Indian or Alaska Native is denoted as American Indian/Alaska Native; Black or African American is shortened to Black; and Hispanic or Latino is shortened to Hispanic. When discussed separately, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander is not shortened in the text, but is shortened in tables and figures to Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

Asians and Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders are combined into one category (Asians/Pacific Islanders) in indicators for which the data were not collected separately or in indicators where it was necessary to increase the sample size required for reporting the two groups.

Most of the data presented in this report were collected in surveys that allowed respondents to self-identify their race and ethnicity. This report uses the term American Indian/Alaska Native in accordance with the definition used by the agency that gathered the data. The definitions used by different agencies are described below:

  • Department of Commerce, Census Bureau: Prior to 2000—anyone having origins in any of the original peoples of North America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
  • Decennial Census of 2000 and thereafter— includes the above definition and anyone having origins in any of the original peoples of South America.
  • Department of Education: For programs—anyone having origins in any of the original peoples of North America (including Central America) and maintaining cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition, including federally and state recognized tribes.

    For survey data collection—anyone having origins in any of the original peoples of North America (including Central America). The definition includes American Indians from South America in recent collection years of sample survey data.
  • Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE): Anyone who is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. Through the BIE's acknowledgment process, tribal groups may be given federal recognition as Indian tribes, making their members eligible to receive services provided to Indians (U.S. Department of the Interior 1999). Members of federally recognized tribes, therefore, do not include all persons who may self-identify themselves as an American Indian or Alaska Native.

Limitations of the Data

The relatively small size of the American Indian and Alaska Native population poses many measurement difficulties when using statistical data. Even in larger surveys, the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives included in a sample population is often small. Researchers studying data on American Indians and Alaska Natives often face small sample sizes that reduce the reliability of results. Survey data for American Indians and Alaska Natives often have somewhat higher standard errors than data for other racial/ethnic groups (Cahalan et al. 1998). Due to large standard errors, differences that may seem substantial are often not statistically significant and, therefore, not cited in the text.

Data on American Indians and Alaska Natives are often subject to inaccuracies that can result when respondents self-identify their race/ethnicity. Indeed, research on the collection of race/ethnicity data suggests that the categorization of American Indian and Alaska Native is the least stable self-identification (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] 1995). The racial/ethnic categories presented to a respondent, and the way in which the question is asked, can influence the response, especially for individuals who consider themselves of mixed race or ethnicity. These data limitations should be kept in mind when reading this report.

The indicators presented in this report are intended to provide an overview of the education data available on American Indians/Alaska Natives from many federal surveys. Readers are cautioned not to draw causal inferences based on the univariate and bivariate results presented in this report. It is important to note that many of the variables examined in this report may be related to one another, and complex interactions and relationships among the variables have not been explored. The variables presented here are also just a sample of the thousands that can be examined using the surveys included in this report. The indicators were selected to provide a range of data that are relevant to a variety of policy issues, rather than emphasize comprehensive information on any particular issue.

Technical Notes

This report includes data from both universe and sample surveys. In the case of universe data, all relevant units are included in the data collection. Thus, there is no sampling error, and observed differences are reported as actual differences. In the case of sample surveys, a nationally representative sample of respondents is selected and asked to participate in the data collection. Since the sample represents just one of many possible samples that could be selected, there is probability of error associated with the sample. To avoid reaching false conclusions about differences between groups or differences over time measured by sample survey data, sampling error is taken into account in statistical tests that are conducted to support statements about differences. Thus, all statements about differences in this report are supported by the data, either directly in the case of universe surveys or with statistical significance testing in the case of sample survey data. All significance tests of differences in sample survey data are tested at the .05 level of significance. Several test procedures were used, depending on the type of data interpreted. The most commonly used test procedures were t tests, linear trend tests, and equivalency tests. The t tests were not adjusted to compensate for multiple comparisons being made simultaneously. Trend tests were conducted by evaluating the significance of the slope of a simple regression of the annual data points, and a t test comparing the end points. Equivalence tests at the 0.15 level were used to determine whether two statistics were substantively equivalent by using a hypothesis test to determine whether the confidence interval of the difference between sample estimates was significantly greater or less than a preset substantively important difference. The appearance of a "!" symbol in a table or figure indicates a data cell with a high ratio of standard error to estimate (0.30 or greater); therefore, the estimate may be unstable and the reader should use caution when interpreting the data. These unstable estimates are discussed, however, when statistically significant differences are found despite large standard errors.

Although percentages reported in the tables are generally rounded to one decimal place (e.g., 76.5 percent), percentages reported in the text and figures are generally rounded from the original number to whole numbers (with any value of 0.50 or above rounded to the next highest whole number). While the data labels on the figures have been rounded to whole numbers, the graphical presentation of these data are based on the unrounded estimates shown in the corresponding table. Due to rounding, cumulative percentages may sometimes equal 99 or 101 percent, rather than 100. In addition, sometimes a whole number in the text may seem rounded incorrectly based on its value when rounded to one decimal place. For example, the percentage 14.479 rounds to 14.5 at one decimal place, but rounds to 14 when reported as a whole number.


2 In 2006, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for the Department of the Interior established the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). This organization is responsible for prekindergarten, elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools and educational activities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Prior to 2006, these schools were referred to as BIA schools.