Ute student test scores continue to worsen, and Utah lawmakers say they have no plans to help

Leaders of the Ute Tribe say their kids are being ‘denied the same rights and opportunities as others’ because of a poor education in the public school system.

It’s sort of like a story problem — only leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe say the consequences are very real.

It goes something like this: Utah has a booming economy. But if some kids are being left behind in the classroom — graduating at the lowest rates in the state and testing worse than their peers — what chance are they really being given to participate in that growth?

The tribe says that is what’s happening with Ute students. And the way they see it, the answer is zero.

Their children, they said in a new statement, are being “denied the same rights and opportunities as others” because the public school system in the Uinta Basin fails to effectively educate them. And it’s limiting their futures.

So now, as the legislative session starts, the question members of the Ute Business Committee are asking: Will Utah lawmakers actually address the longstanding disparity for the kids of the state’s namesake tribe?

“The Utah state motto is ‘Life Elevated,’ but that motto apparently does not apply to all Utah citizens and, in particular the Ute Indian Tribe and its children,” the Ute leaders said. “As long as the public school system fails to address its poor treatment of Native students, the public school system will continue to fail the Ute Indian Tribe and its children.”

The statement comes as data from the 2022-23 school year is now online and shows Ute students slipping further behind nearly every other demographic group in the state — even as other students are starting to bounce back from the pandemic.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last summer that Ute students in the Uinta Basin — where the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation sits in the eastern corner of the state — have been the students most likely to drop out of high school. And their test scores rank the lowest among any racial or ethnic group.

The most recent numbers from Uintah School District and Duchesne County School District, which cover the region and enroll the more than 800 Ute K-12 students in the state, marked continued declines for the Native population.

Graduation rates fell in Uintah School District from 65% of Ute students getting a degree in spring 2022, to now below 59% for 2023. Meanwhile, nearly 88% of white students in the district graduated — on par with statewide percentages.

Duchesne County School District saw a small jump from 63% Ute students graduating in 2022, to about 70% in 2023. Nearly 90% of white students there finished high school.

Those graduation rates for Ute students are among the lowest in the state — and are well below the graduation rate for all Native students in Utah, at 77%, which also dipped from the previous year.

The gaps in Uintah and Duchesne school districts have existed for decades, with tribal leaders pointing to an education system that fails to support their kids — and has since they completely shifted over to public schools after the closure of two Indigenous boarding schools that had operated on the reservation. Those created a legacy of punishing Ute students for their culture, leaders say, and leaving them behind.

“When it comes to education, Indigenous students across Utah are being left behind, but none more so than the children of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation,” tribal leaders wrote in their statement.

It is a “widely known problem that has persisted for generations,” they said.

Most recently, test scores for Ute students in English fell from 10% proficiency in language arts in Uintah School District to 8% in 2023. That means not even one in ten Ute students are on reading grade level. Meanwhile, 43% of white students there are proficient. And 18% of Native students across the state are.

And some individual grade levels fell below that. For fourth graders in Uintah School District, only 6% of Ute students were proficient in language arts. And less than 5% of seventh graders.

Similarly, both math and science scores for Ute students in Duchesne County School District dropped for Ute students in 2023 from the previous year — while white students in the district improved in both subjects. Fewer than 6% of Ute students in Duchesne were proficient in math in 2023, down from nearly 8% in 2022.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson had promised to take action in response to The Tribune’s initial reporting on the gap. She said then: “We will definitely be digging into this and looking to see how the state can do things differently to ensure ALL students have a good education—especially Native students in the Uinta Basin.”

Henderson did not respond to a request for comment on her plans from The Tribune ahead of the legislative session and in response to the latest declining numbers.

Additionally, the state lawmakers who cover that region of the state are not planning any bills to support Ute students — inaction that comes as they are focused instead on dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education, many of which help Native students to graduate from college.

Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, didn’t answer several calls and an email from The Tribune.

Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, said he saw the reporting last summer, but none of his constituents have asked him to run a bill “so consequently I don’t have any planned.”

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said the same. She pointed to previous bills to help students in the Uinta Basin, and said those are having an impact and need more time to work.

As an experiment, Utah lawmakers provided funding beginning in 2016 to see what Uintah School District could do to at least stem teacher turnover at Eagle View Elementary, which has the district’s largest Ute student population.

It spent the money on a van to transport teachers who live in Vernal to and from the school each morning. That has helped reduce turnover to an average of 13% of educators leaving.

Chris Jones, the principal of Eagle View, spoke to lawmakers about the efforts during the interim.

“Historically, we have had achievement problems at Eagle View,” he noted.

In the 2018-2019 school year, he showed data that about 70% of students at the school were below the benchmark on the K-5 reading test known as Acadience. With the teacher retention program, he said, scores have improved.

In the spring 2023, Jones said, 50% of students were now reaching proficiency on that test. However, those numbers are reflected on the year-end exams, called RISE. On that, about 20% of students at Eagle View were testing at grade level — though still higher than other schools in the district.

Henderson has previously pointed to the success there, too. But the Legislature’s funding has been limited for that school. And no others in either Uintah or Duchesne school districts are seeing improvements. And by middle school and high school, many of the gains from Eagle View disappear without continued support, based on the data.

Neither district responded to The Tribune’s request for comment on this story, asking whether they planned to request legislation to help support Native students.

Utah ranks at the bottom of per-pupil spending in the country. State lawmakers have long said that’s not concerning, pointing to test results instead, as the metric of success.

And while across the state most students do well on those exames, Ute students in the Uinta Basin are failing.

Leaders of the Ute Tribe said the state has long known what could help to address the problem — particularly infusing more culture into the curriculum. But the members of the Ute Business Committee say the problem is ignored, like it’s just an example in a textbook.

“Instead, the schools continue to teach Native children in the same ways and continue to get the same results,” the leaders wrote, “leaving Ute tribal members at a significant disadvantage.”