Arts Education Opportunities, Achievement Gaps Remain, Survey Finds

Results do not include fallout from economic crisis, which is likely to curb school arts programs.

by Aalok Mehta

June 15, 2009

Middle school students today have roughly the same access to music and visual arts education as they did more than 10 years ago, according to a new national survey. How much they know about each art remains low, however, and the significant gaps in knowledge and ability in those fields among students of different races, genders and socioeconomic factors also has not changed in a decade, the survey reports.

In addition, “The Nation’s Report Card: Arts 2008” was conducted early last year, before the worst of the economic contraction that has sent state budgets—and those of many school systems—plunging.

“Because the assessment was given just before the U.S. economy started to deteriorate, it’s difficult to project how fragile K-12 arts education may become as state budgets contract,” said Eileen Weiser, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), during a press conference on June 15 in Washington, D.C. The NAGB is an independent federal board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which conducted the survey.

Those potential impending cuts have spurred many educators to seek out new reasons to sustain arts programs, which are often the first on the chopping block due to their cost and outside mandates to focus on improving standardized test scores in reading and math.

“Numerous studies show the benefits of arts education,” said Patrice Walker Powell, acting chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, echoing recent reports linking arts education to better overall academic achievement. “Arts education promotes critical thinking and problem solving and is key to a successful 21st century work force.”

The survey’s staff tested 4,000 U.S. students in the eighth grade, a representative sample of the nation’s children, in each of the two subjects, said Stuart Kerachsky, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Students answered multiple-choice questions assessing their ability to recognize, assess or analyze pieces of music or visual art. In the visual arts category only, students also drew a self-portrait.

Opportunities for arts education held consistent between 1997, when the previous arts assessment took place, and 2008, with 57 percent of students attending schools that offered music instruction and 47 percent visual arts education at least three times a week, the assessment group reports.

But actual knowledge levels remain fairly low, said Weiser, a classically trained pianist. “About half of eighth graders could identify a Renaissance painting. A little more than half could identify a half note or the correct time signature for a piece of printed music. About 20 percent knew that the symbol p in a music score stands for piano in Italian,” she said. “While these results are mediocre, not dire, they are disturbing signs for this musician.”

When broken down by gender and race, the results likewise prove mixed. In music, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students scored better, as did female students and students not eligible for subsidized lunch programs, a proxy for socioeconomic status. Those attending public schools did worse than those in private schools, and students attending suburban, town or rural schools did better than those in city schools. A similar pattern held for visual arts education, with one exception: no significant difference among students attending public or private schools.

Such differences in achievement based on gender, location, race and socioeconomic status have long held across many surveys of academic achievement and were in part a motivation for the federal No Child Left Behind program. “The differences in scores for students according to race and ethnicity were similar to what we see in other NAEP Report Cards,” Kerachsky said.

Because the assessors used different methods than they did in 1997, much of the 2008 report is not directly comparable to the earlier report, he said. The previous report also looked at theater and dance education, but because so few schools offer them, those subjects were dropped this time to save money.