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Counting and Listening to Native American Students: Reflections on NIES and its Potential

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, IES is highlighting the National Indian Education Study (NIES) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in partnership with the Office of Indian Education (OIE). Dr. Meredith Larson, who has been with the National Center for Education Research (NCER) since 2010 interviewed Dr. Jamie Deaton about NIES. Dr. Deaton has worked at NCES since 2009 and became the NIES Project Director in April 2010.

What is NIES, and how is it similar or different from other NAEP studies?

NIES describes the condition of education for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students in the United States. Since 2005, NCES has administered it in conjunction with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) state-level assessments in mathematics and reading at grades 4 and 8. The very large NAEP sample allows us to report data for AI/AN students nationally and for various subgroups of AI/AN students. In NIES, students first take either the NAEP mathematics or reading assessment, followed by a NAEP survey questionnaire, and then an NIES survey questionnaire (which emphasizes Native language and culture). Both NAEP and NIES survey questionnaires are also administered to the teachers and school administrators of AI/AN students. You can learn more about the survey design here.



What are some examples of how have policymakers, practitioners, or researchers used it?

NIES data has been used in Congressional testimony and at the state level. For example, NIES data has been included in past testimonies to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies; the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education; and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. At the state level, Oregon used NIES data to support a successful request to its state legislature to approve a full-time Indian Education Specialist within the Oregon Department of Education.

We also want to ensure that a variety of educational leaders—especially Native leaders—are aware of the study and can access the results and products. In addition to the online reports, we also produce hard copies to ensure results get to those without easy access to online documents. We help distribute these widely via a Native-owned NIES contractor (currently Tribal Tech, LLC) to Tribal colleges and universities, AI/AN studies programs at colleges and universities, all federal and state recognized tribes, AI/AN focused media, research centers, and other related AI/AN non-profits.

In addition, we want to get the results in the hands of school leaders. For example, all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools serving grades 4 and 8 are in the NIES sample, and all of these schools receive hard copies of NIES reports.

What makes working on NIES study interesting to you?

Building partnerships with Native leaders both within and outside the federal government has been really rewarding. We administer NIES on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education (OIE) which provides funding for the study; integrates NIES data collection with its work when possible; and serves as a strong partner, advocate, and disseminator for NIES results. NIES is not only conducted in conjunction with the NAEP program but also conducted in conjunction with OIE’s work. Over the years, I have regularly presented to OIE grantees, and this has been a wonderful forum to share more about the study and also draw connections to and learn more about grantee-related work.

For NIES to be successful, it needs to be guided not just by assessment experts, but by Native experts. To this end, NCES established the NIES Technical Review Panel (TRP) made up of individuals with expertise in matters related to the education of AI/AN students. Members oversee the development of the NIES survey questionnaires and guide the planning, drafting, and revision of NIES publications with their ongoing expert consultation. In conjunction with the release of the last two NIES reports, the TRP has also authored a companion document, called  Setting the Context, that provides perspective on how this study fits into the larger sphere of education for AI/AN students. Tribal Tech recruits BIE schools for the study, disseminates study results at conferences focused on AI/AN education (for example, National Indian Education Association Annual Convention & Trade Show), and has established a long-term partnership with a Native-owned printing company (Sault Printing Company Inc.) that helps produce and disseminate NIES-related documents.

What excites you about NIES?

I’m very excited about last year’s release of the 2019 NIES Qualitative Data Companion as a public use data file (available in Excel files on the NIES main page). The data release marked the first time in NIES program history that qualitative survey questions, collected since 2005, became publicly available. Prior to the release, we ensured that all student and teacher responses were reviewed and edited to remove the presence of names or addresses and any other Personal Identifiable Information (PII). My hope is that having an established process for releasing this type of data will be beneficial to other IES data collections. Members of the TRP deserve a lot of credit for continuously advocating for this data. Had the TRP not done so, there was a real possibility that we would have dropped these qualitative questions from future data collections. Instead, we now have a model to follow for getting this data out to the public. We are also working on releasing previous NIES Qualitative Data Companions from earlier NIES administrations too.

From a research perspective, what do these qualitative data provide?

Researchers without a restricted-use data (RUD) license now can access this robust dataset. We recognize that many of our stakeholders live in remote areas and/or have other barriers to accessing the RUD (for example, those not affiliated with an institution). I think for doctoral candidates these data provide an opportunity for a dissertation with data already gathered and accessible for analysis.

There are many different angles to approach this open-ended data. For example, the final question on the NIES student survey is “What else would you like to say about yourself, your school, or about American Indian or Alaska Native people?” I’m curious what researchers would find as key differences when comparing grade 4 responses to grade 8. What are some themes and patterns in student respondents? What is the breakdown between responses that pertain to Native language and culture, and how does this differ across school types, such as public schools run by the states and schools operated through funding from the Bureau of Indian Education?  

Are there other resources for researchers interested in NIES data?

Another public use tool is the NIES Data Explorer available at NDE Core Web ( This explorer includes a wealth of data from all previous NIES administrations. If you go to the NDE Core Web page, you will find other relevant data explorers available including the Main NAEP, High School Transcript Study, and Long-Term Trend.

This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (, research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education, NCER. Individuals or organizations interested in learning about field-initiated research or training grant opportunities to conduct work relevant to Native American/Alaska Native prekindergarten through postsecondary and adult education may contact her for initial technical assistance.