Public school officials on the Wind River Reservation spoke with a legislative committee last month about the ways standardized test scores and graduation statistics don’t adequately reflect the work they’re doing to help their students achieve academic success.
“Numbers can be deceiving,” Arapaho Charter High School principal Katie Law told the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations last month.
She pointed, for example, to the 18 percent graduation rate ACHS recorded this spring, despite graduating 13 of its 15 seniors – the “biggest graduating class in Arapaho Charter history.”
Only six of those 13 students were four-year graduates, however, Law said – and four of those weren’t included in the ACHS graduation rate because they had “attended other schools first.”
The other members of the ACHS Class of 2023 were five- and six-year graduates, Law said.
Those five- and six-year seniors aren’t included in the state’s “on-time” graduation statistics – but maybe they should be, Fremont County School District 14 (Wyoming Indian) superintendent Stephanie Zickefoose said, explaining that, “(for) our students, it may not be the value for many of our families that they’re done at 18 and out the door.”
“It’s OK for them to stay another couple of years and get their education – and we provide that for them,” Zickefoose said.
Office of Indian Education
The recommendation to re-think the fifth- and sixth-year graduation rate was included in a list of requests the three public school districts on the reservation submitted as part of their report to the Tribal Relations Committee last month.
The districts would also like the state to establish an Office of Indian Education within the Wyoming Department of Education, Zickefoose said.
The new agency “could support our schools on the reservation” as they work to develop “curriculum and materials that are culturally relevant, (and) assessment data that is also culturally relevant,” FCSD 21 (Fort Washakie) superintendent Deb Smith said.
Earlier, Law had mentioned that some of her students struggle with standardized tests “because of the types of questions” that are included on the assessments, like math problems featuring items that students don’t recognize or aren’t familiar with.
To address the issue, she said ACHS created customized practice questions that were “more culturally relevant” – and many students demonstrated “a shift in their thought patterns” as a result.
Now, FCSD 38 (Arapahoe) is working with Solution Tree to develop a “common formative assessment” that uses a “standards-based approach” to help teachers “create projects and questions that are more geared towards the ways our students think and things that they know,” Law said.
It’s important for educators on the reservation to “recognize that our students’ needs are unique (and require) integrating our culture into some of the ways that instruction is given and also assessed,” Smith said.
She also pointed out that students who don’t score well on “long” standardized tests are still “doing great on their classroom-based assessments” during regular school days.
“We see their learning in action, (and) we are making gains,” Smith said. “If we could capture that and report that to the state, we would probably be off our school improvement plans. …
“(Instead), we’re always under that microscope.”
‘A different way’
The standardized testing situation is “very frustrating,” Smith said, because “we’re doing the best that we can” and “we’re proud of our kids.”
“We hope they test better on (the) exam, yes,” Smith said. “But that doesn’t define who our kids are.”
Zickefoose agreed that members of the public spend too much time concentrating on “what’s not working, rather than what is working” at schools on the reservation – “and we have a lot working at our schools,” she added, pointing, for example, to the recent success of the FCSD 14 robotics team, among other groups.
“Those are our students – they’re not the students on the WY-TOPP scores,” Zickefoose said. “Our students have dreams and hopes, and they’re getting there, (but) it’s going to take a different way of looking at that.”
Students on the reservation don’t always follow “the traditional” educational pathway, Zickefoose noted, partly because of their demographics: State staffers said 100 percent of students in FCSD 21 and 38 – and 83 percent of students in FCSD 14 – qualified as “at risk” last year, meaning they were English Language Learners, received free or reduced lunches, or changed schools in grades 6-12.
“When they come from poverty, when they come with the challenges and complexities they come with, it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of heavy lifting,” Zickefoose said.
At ACHS, Law said 70 percent of students come from single-parent households or have a deceased parent, 39 percent have experienced substance use issues or self-harm, 38 percent have recorded gaps in their schooling, 25 percent are in special education programs, 18 percent qualify as unhoused, 15 percent are involved in the criminal justice system, and 15 percent are parents.
“Most of our students do not fit the typical high school demographic for a variety of reasons,” she said. “So it’s a big task for the charter school to kind of balance out these different demographics and get students prepared for the next level, whatever that may be. (We) work around whatever barriers they see to their education.”
The reservation schools districts also maintain a strong emphasize on Tribal culture and languages, and they utilize federal Impact Aid funding to hire more teachers, counselors and support staff than the state provides for.
The federal money goes toward extra food offerings as well, Zickefoose said, and it covers day-care, pre-kindergarten programs, and expanded athletics opportunities, among other items.
In their request for support, the reservation school districts asked the state to consider funding more of those “wrap around services” that address students’ “social, emotional (and) mental health needs,” including “appropriations for positions critical to student achievement” and “cessation programs” for students struggling with substance use disorders.
The committee didn’t take action on any of the requests last month, but they identified education as a priority for the future, and Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said she plans to host several work sessions on the reservation this month that will help the state develop a plan for the local districts moving forward.