Obscured Identities: Improving the Accuracy of Identification of American Indian and Alaska Native Students


June 2017


Native American students from the University of Oregon
Photo courtesy of the Native American Student Union at the University of Oregon

This brief serves as a resource for K–12 districts, state education agencies, higher education institutions and district Title VI Indian education offices. The brief outlines the challenges in identifying American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students, provides federal definitions and offers a set of promising practices for different audiences.

How are colleges improving the way they identify and support AI/AN students? See our new blog post on how the University of Oregon has made strides in overcoming many of these challenges.


American Indians are the only group in the country that must prove their race or ethnicity through membership or descendancy to receive designated federal services and funding.

This is critical for several reasons. One is that the definition of who qualifies as (AI/AN) influences the funding, programs and policies available to Indian Country. Inaccurate identification of AI/AN students can also present serious noncompliance issues with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The ways AI/AN students are defined and identified vary—which has created many challenges, including dramatic fluctuations in AI/AN student counts. Differences between federal definitions of who qualifies as AI/AN, as well as revised data-collection processes that do not allow multiple races and ethnicities to be recorded, have led to significant under-identification of K–12 Native students. This is particularly true for students with complex ancestries.

Inaccurate data impact the statistics generated from ethnic and racial classifications, such as graduation and dropout rates, attendance rates and percentages of students meeting academic standards. Without accurate data, it is impossible to track the improvements or declines in AI/AN student success—which undermines confidence in data on Native students. It also suggests students who are eligible for educational services and opportunities may not be receiving them.

Accurate student counts are necessary to ensure treaty obligations are fulfilled, programs designed to meet the needs of Native students are appropriately funded, and the performance of AI/AN students can be reliably tracked.

This brief is based on work by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s Northwest Tribal Educators Alliance, a working group made up of members of the Education Committee of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest.