Multicultural Affairs

Using the Indigenous Conceptual Framework in Assessment—Part 2: A Native American Perspective

By Paul Dauphinais, Carol Robinson–Zañartu, Elvina Charley, Olivia Melroe & Sally A. Baas

pp. 27-29

Volume 47 Issue 2

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In Part 1 of this article, we introduced John, his family, and his community (Dauphinais, Robinson–Zañartu, Charley, Melroe, & Baas, 2018). John was referred for an assessment because he was experiencing problems with reading fluency and recall and exhibiting some oppositional behaviors in the home and school settings. The focus of Part 1 was to present the eight-star conceptual framework to support the efforts of school psychologists to meet the needs of Indigenous youth (NASP, 2012) and discuss elements of the red star as representative of the four qualities of the human being with respect to who both John and the school psychologist are and how they present themselves. Part 2 focuses on building this relationship as the assessment process continues, looking through the eyes and mind of one Native American school psychologist.

The Black Star

The four points of the black star represent aspects of relationships (how they are formed and how they are maintained). If our intention in forming a relationship is authentic, the relationship will be strong and mutual. Understanding Native America's sovereignty, which is complex in its relationship to identity and culture and can be misunderstood, adds to that relationship. Language is a culture-carrier reflecting a core value. The school psychologist builds genuine reciprocity by developing respectful relationships with youth, families, and communities, which “emerges from respectful intentionality, recognition of sovereignty, and understanding the issues of language acquisition” (Charley, Robinson-Zañartu, Melroe, Dauphinais, & Baas, 2015).

Black Star: Intentionality

In exploring my intentionality, I first examine what I bring to the relationship. As an Indigenous school psychologist, I bring my observations of other 9-year-olds in this reservation community, as well as my own early development and the background in which I was raised. The early experiences growing up in this community did not match those typically presented in my school psychology training. This contrast between my own background and that of children portrayed in textbooks and encountered as an intern away from my community inspires an inquiry that includes what is known about specific learning problems, John's developmental and family histories, and what is known within the context of my community. I bring a unique set of facts, observations, and insights to this relationship that will, at times, cloud, yet clarify. The opacity will result from the meager existing research about Native Americans and learning problems, and the transparency will come from understanding John in his context. Bringing these things to the relationship, however, does not make the assessment easier.

Reflection. What is involved in this relationship? Contradictions: what I was taught, what I know, what I see, who I am, who the members of the community are.

I realize that there is a tension in being sufficiently familiar to gain rapport with John and his family and having the relationship be tainted with too much familiarity. My relationship with the community will engender greater insights into the academic and social performance of other children in the school setting. However, my seeming alliance with the institution creates issues of trust with the power structures within the community that the family may have had, such as law enforcement or child protective services, and may hinder my relationship. I understand that learning problems can result from or co-occur with family and social problems. Knowing John's family as a community member increases the possibility that I will need to factor any such issues into thinking about John and any existing learning problems without bias.

My line of inquiry with John and with the family will need to be planned carefully so that the relationship is protected and not compromised by overfamiliarity with the context. I will need to tread lightly and slowly to lessen the possibility of negative perceptions by John and his family. John is cognitively aware and sufficiently perceptive to understand certain lines of questions. My questions for John, including the family background that will inform me, must be respectful and yet provide evidence that is insightful and enlightens the assessment. I will acknowledge the culture and identity presented by John and his family. I want to be able to obtain an accurate picture of how John's family perceives their identity as Native Americans and as members of the community. How one perceives oneself as a Native American is, for many, a very individual and personal matter. I will think about the impact of cultural practices on John's specific performance in the school setting and in the context of family. The practices of the culture may not impact John's day-to-day academic performance, but the incorporation of the values that culture engenders on a personal level will assist in determining John's motivation toward academic excellence.

I am an invested community member. The community expects me to help children maximize their potential so they can also become contributing and invested community members or represent the community well if they choose an occupation that takes them away from the community. As a community member, I make every effort to contribute to the goals of the community; that is, to be a school psychologist who sees each child as a significant part of the community now and in the future. I use all of my personal and professional resources to make the community environment and school environment a place that can contribute to each child's growth socially, psychologically, academically, and spiritually.

Reflection. Being a Native American school psychologist is confusing and stressful at times: It is compounded by the history of educating American Indians, assimilation, impact of historical trauma, boarding schools, and abuse.

Native children are referred for evaluation and are placed in special education in greater numbers than other children. Historical trauma has had a prodigiously negative impact on Indigenous peoples psychologically, socially, physically, spiritually, and in their academic performance in the school setting. I take the referrals by educators at face value and see them as authentic. Our children may experience academic problems in greater numbers than other populations, a fact to be included as part of the assessment process of John. Is he part of a larger group of referred students who are behind due to issues other than school, such as poverty and trauma-related incidents experienced within the community or within the family structure? Does John's behavior create learning problems? Is John experiencing specific learning problems related to cognitive issues? Are those issues interrelated?

Reflection. What is John thinking? Doctor, am I sick? What do you know about me? Sometimes I don't understand things. Sometimes I get mad, I don't know why. Sometimes I do things I shouldn't. Why do I do them over again? Why don't I learn from getting punished? I can't sit still; my body just wants to move. I can't pay attention. Is it me, or did something happen to me? Am I sick? I don't remember that anything happened to me.

Black Star: Sovereignty

John, his family, and I live in a community that has a unique relationship with the United States government. It is a government-to-government relationship—the United States to each Tribal Nation. The tribes entered into negotiated agreements with the federal government and are self-governing, which provides them with a significant role in the education of their children. I understand that criteria for qualifying for an IEP are the same for John as for other students in the state; tribes have not typically written their own special education rules. As John matures, he will learn about this term sovereignty, and know that it is part of who he is.

Reflection. Who owns me? Why do I have an “enrollment number?” I am an enrolled member of my tribe (one half, Metis, Mitchif, Mixed Blood). Which half is Indian, which half is not Indian? Not sure. What does my tribe own? Who owns the tribe? What does my tribe govern? Who am I governed by? People talk about the rez, where I live. Somebody once asked me, “Why don't you just open the gate and leave?” Sovereignty: the right to tell my own story in my own context.

Who would we have been if allowed to develop along a natural historical trajectory? This question is the starting point for redefining and reconstructing an indigenous perspective and pedagogy for education in the 21st century (Wasseqiliq Price, 2005). John's knowledge of his culture and language is dependent on his people. Native American people have the right and responsibility to preserve our sovereignty and the right to play a significant role in our identity formation. It has been and continues to be a difficult road back from assimilationist policies. John is the future for our tribe and tribal governance; if he does not understand the role of sovereignty, we must ask, where will we be? That is the importance of sovereignty. Each federally recognized American Indian tribe has sovereign status with the U.S. government because they preexist the United States and entered into treaties with the United States as separate nations. Each of these tribes has a land base upon which they base their identity. As a sovereign nation, each tribe is self-governing and can establish who can be a member of their tribe—usually by blood quantum—giving each tribal member an identity no matter where they live or go to school.

Black Star: Language

In conversation with John, I am cognizant of similarities and differences in language use compared to other children in the community, as well as to that of children the same age in the general population. John speaks with a prose that is characteristically exhibited within his family and community. I also speak with this same pattern when in conversation with family and with community members, but I learned to speak Standard English in professional settings. John's receptive vocabulary is not that of Standard English, but quite functional in his setting. However, this may impede his reading comprehension. John's expressive vocabulary is characterized by “talking around” the explicit definition of any given word or concept; that is, he can tell you about something, but may not know the specific name/noun. For example, when I showed John a picture of a cactus, he called it a “pokey plant.” Only a handful of traditional speakers are left in our community, but there is a carryover of language structure from the native language embedded in the English usage, as happens in many tribal communities (Leap, 1993). For example, when asked about his participation in an event, John might respond with, “I play basketball, me.”

I will assess to what extent John's use of Standard English impacts his academic growth. It will be helpful to know whether he can learn academic English and retain the community and family English currently used. If he can make that transition, he will have a greater chance at academic success.

Reflection. Saying what I know and understanding what is said (so simple, yet so hard). Gaps in communication: ways of knowing; how is this expressed? Native language. Language revitalization.

Black Star: Reciprocity

Even though I am a community member and consider my intentions respectful, and recognize personal and tribal sovereignty, as well as respect of the language presented, I must still gauge and analyze the responses of John and his family. Do John's responses and those of the family seem to be authentic, or is there merely a tolerance of my inquiry? Does the family seem irritated by my interview questions? I am aware that there can be challenges that may arise as I build a relationship with John and the family. There is reciprocity with the community as an indigenous community member, but to what extent this carries over to those students and families with whom an in-depth relationship is to be built needs to be examined.

Assessment Results

As a member of a team, I consider all the information gathered in the assessment process. All the data should be determined to be authentic to John and not biased. Administration of a test of cognitive ability is unnecessary and may, if pursued, lead to biased and socially and negatively impactful labeling. Thus, the discrepancy model should not be used with Native American students; in making a determination of whether John is in need of an IEP, the response to intervention (RTI) process will help the IEP team serve John better.

John's reading fluency is significantly lower than grade level peers, with fewer words read per minute and less accuracy. When reading passages, he has difficulty with the vocabulary and cannot consistently retell or answer questions about what he has read. In contrast, John can tell about the story when it is read to him. John has good thinking skills and is well informed about general knowledge of the community, tribal customs, and the implications for his own behavior. The RTI and problem-solving processes demonstrated that John was unresponsive to interventions. His reading DIBELS fluency and comprehension scores did not improve at the expected rate during intervention. Diagnostic reading assessment indicated significant deficits when compared to same-grade peers of similar cultural backgrounds.

I tell John about other children who have had similar experiences (i.e., absent father, single mother, and problems with reading). John responds to this with seeming insight and relief that there might be an explanation for his problems. I am familiar with research in verbal interaction exhibited by Native Americans, and attempt to engage John about his behavior. I understand that sharing of such information “allows” the listener to reciprocate and better understand their own behavior and possibly, with assistance, make changes. I may use the revelation of intergenerational trauma as a means to have the family gain greater insight into their family issues and help them find a cultural mentor in the community. Clarifying culture for the family may provide them with an internal support and guide them in making substantive changes.

The IEP team has recommended special education services that will provide academic supports to improve John's reading skills. Task-related negative behaviors will be monitored to determine whether these interventions will have a positive impact. If not, the team will request further assessment of these specific behaviors.

Summary and Conclusion

The framework presented in Charley et al. (2015) provides a guide into working within the worldview of this Native American child, family, community, and school psychologist. Using the framework, the school psychologist does not need to know all cultures of all Indigenous peoples. With an understanding of cultural dimensions represented through the graphic (the intersectionality of the eight-star model), the school psychologist is given a tool to explore the foundations of cross-cultural interactions formed in a reciprocal relationship with the student, family, and community. The framework helps the school psychologist understand that Native American people are grounded within their culture and identity expressed in a worldview. This worldview provides us a basis to understand what it is to be a human and how to form relationships with others.

Significant issues arise when assessing and testing Indigenous children. Some have recommended circumventing the issue of bias of tests by creating local norming (c.f., Gritzmacher & Gritzmacher, 2010). The first author's personal experience was to do just that in the mid-1980s with the WISC-R; W–J; CELF; TOLD-R; WRAT-R; and CBM Writing, Reading Fluency, Spelling, and Math Calculation. In all, the local norming of most standardized assessments was ineffective in identifying our children with disabilities; CBM norm data was helpful until the standards of expected rates of learning were generated nationwide. A review of archival special education placement data from 13 years demonstrated that those students who were tested and placed produced scores similar to those who were tested and not placed (Dauphinais & Varniak, 1995). Aptitude by treatment interaction has not been effective and just does not work (Tilly, 2007). Testing of intelligence offers little to determine special education eligibility and placement, especially with indigenous children, and even less in offering what interventions should be considered. Thus, work in Indigenous communities is complex and requires a comprehensive examination of factors related to the students in their community contexts. The framework supports our work in doing just that.

Miigwech (thank you).


Charley, E., Robinson-Zañartu, C., Melroe, O., Dauphinais, P., & Baas, S. A. (2015). Using the NASP framework for effective practice with indigenous youth, families, and communities. Communique 44(4), 1, 20.

Dauphinais, P., Robinson-Zañartu, C., Charley, E., Melroe, O., & Baas, S. A. (2018). Using the Indigenous Conceptual Framework in Assessment: A Native American Perspective—Part 1. Communiqué, 47(1), 1, 24–25.

Dauphinais, P., & Vraniak, D. (1995). Local norming test results for American Indian school-aged children. Unpublished Manuscript.

Gritzmacher, H., & Gritzmacher, S. (2010, Summer). Referral, assessment, and placement practices used in rural school districts with Native American students in special education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 29(2), 4–11.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2012). Effective service delivery for indigenous children and youth [position statement]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from

Leap, W. L. (1993). American Indian English. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.

Tilly, D. III. (2007, January). New ways of thinking about instruction, assessment and intervention for all kids— and why we're thinkin’ that way. Presentation at the EED Winter Education Conference—Informing Instruction: Improving Achievement. Juneau, AK.

Wasseqiliq Price, M. (2005, Spring). Seeds of Educational Sovereignty: Sisseton Wahpeton cultivating culturally-centered learning. Tribal College, Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 16(3). Retrieved from

Paul Dauphinais, PhD, is a retired school psychologist in Bottineau, North Dakota. Carol Robinson-Zañartu, PhD, is Professor Emerita, Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University, where she directs the Native American Scholars and Collaborators Projects. Elvina Charley (Diné) is a school psychologist in the Kayenta Unified School District in Arizona and is cochair of the Indigenous Work Group of the NASP Multicultural Affairs Committee. Olivia Melroe, EdD, is a professor and director of the school psychology graduate program at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Sally A. Baas, EdD, is a professor and program director, Southeast Asian Teacher Program, Hmong Culture and Language Program, Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota