Chinle Diné offers voice for Native education

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 13, 2011

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(Courtesy photo)

Karen Francis-Begay

A Chinle native has been named trustee for one of the most influential groups in American higher education.

Karen Francis-Begay, 45, will help oversee the College Board, best known for administering the Scholastic Aptitude Test - SAT - the basic "college entrance" exam that many schools use in screening applicants for admission.

"I think this time is going to be really challenging," said Francis-Begay, who was appointed to a four-year term and is one of 31 trustees nationwide.

"I do want to take advantage of the time and be a voice for Native American education. There is only so much I do with the time," she said.

Francis-Begay, who is Tábaahá (Edge Water Clan), born for Kiyaa'áanii (Towering House Clan), nominated herself for the position and is only the second Native American to serve on the College Board. (Ferlin Clark, former Diné College president, was the first Native named to the board.)

Francis-Begay is no stranger to higher education. An alumna of the University of Arizona, she is special advisor on Native American affairs to the UA president.

Prior to that, she was director of the Native American Student Affairs program at the university.

As someone close to the scene, she knows the SATs have often been criticized for cultural bias in favor of students from well-to-do white backgrounds.

While she only joined the trustees in October, Francis-Begay said in recent years she has worked with the College Board on various projects to increase the number Natives in college.

One project she plans to continue working with is the Native American Student Advocacy Institute, which is part of the board.

"I've been a part of it since the beginning," she said of the 5-year-old institute.

The institute's primary focus is helping Native students attend college. And in the coming years, Francis-Begay said she wants to devote more focus to making sure they stay in college once they get there.

"The College Board is really on the forefront of trying to reach out to Native American communities and work better to involve families and students about the college planning process," she said.

Critics say that while the board has made advances in erasing bias from test questions, it must now address the advantage conferred by SAT prep courses, whose cost puts them out of reach for many students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, Francis-Begay, who admits she once had the same thoughts of the test, said she spent a summer as part of the Visiting Scholars Program for Educational Testing Services, which develops the SAT.

ETS also prepares other industry standard tests like the Graduation Record Examination, a test used for graduate school entrance, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, administered to students from non-English-speaking countries.

"I had the same notion," she said, referring to the SATs reputation for built-in bias (example: a question about tennis terminology). "I really wanted to understand how the test product was developed."

Francis-Begay said she came away with a better understanding and appreciation of the test and how it is composed, and helped ETS to identify parts that could demean or misrepresent Native culture.

"It was a good experience," she said.

"She's a knowledgeable person when I looked at it from a diversity assessment," said Lewis Shumaker, ETS senior workforce consultant.

Francis-Begay also worked closely with Sydell Carlton, ETS assessment specialist, Shumaker said.

"Her input was invaluable especially since she was able to speak about a group with which ETS has relatively little experience," Carlton and Shumaker said in a joint prepared statement.

"On more than one occasion she was able to help us steer clear of materials that might offend the sensitivities of Native Americans or do damage to the belief of the Native American culture," they stated. "We still rely on her on an ongoing basis for information and advice on matters."

Francis-Begay said she now is confident that ETS is committed to improving the cultural balance of its tests.

"When I came away, one of the things I did learn is that they try very hard to eliminate any cultural bias in their test questions," she said.

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