The Arts, Test Scores, and the Media

By Sean Cavanagh — June 19, 2009 4 min read

When Capitol Hill lawmakers set out once again on the path to reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, some of them are likely to be bringing along a couple reports released this week as reading material.

Two of the most persistent complaints about the law are that it has 1) narrowed the curriculum, pushing aside arts and humanities; and 2) neglected the needs of the highest- and lowest-performing students in the rush to help students reach “proficiency.” The studies released this week, while they’re hardly the final word on these issues, seem to counter those claims. As reported by my colleague Mary Ann Zehr, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that the amount of visual arts and music instruction being taught in schools had pretty much held steady from a decade ago, the pre-NCLB era. The federal government’s current ed statistics guru, Stuart Kerachsky, offered a caveat: that the study measures the number of school offerings, as reported by administrators, not actual student participation. Arts advocates are likely to make the same point. They’ll also note that the percentage of schools offering visual arts and music classes (47 percent and 57 percent, respectively) aren’t exactly stellar. Just this week, the arts crowd descended on D.C. to ask that arts and music be made core subjects under NCLB, as Mary Ann explains.

Also this week, a Washington think tank, the Center on Education Policy, released a study showing that state scores at all three achievement levels—"basic,” “proficient”, and “advanced"—were rising in roughly three-quarters of cases. The most-discussed angle, in our story and elsewhere, was state test scores for students at the basic and advanced levels rose about as often as those of proficient students. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation interjects a few very good points of caution. First, he directs us to other analyses, by his organization and others, that say the performance of advanced students in the age of NCLB is more mixed. The CEP report is measuring gains in overall state test scores, not the size of those gains, which he says are modest or negligible. Also, he says states are most likely setting the advanced bar pretty low. In other words, students falling into the advanced category, in reality, may in fact be only above average.

On a different topic…Petrilli, in a separate post, questions why the various reports released this week (including Gary Phillips’ study of U.S. vs. international test scores) didn’t get more press coverage, and why the mainstream press seemed to prioritize them the way they did. Andy Rotherham raises a similar question. The NAEP/arts story, and the release of a report showing unimpressive charter school results, as Petrilli points out, received many column inches; the CEP report not as much. Petrilli says “bad news sells better than good news.” Maybe. But there are other, more obvious issues in play. The NAEP/arts report was an opportunity for the media to delve into a topic that tons of their readers are passionate about (judging from the reaction we get when we write about the arts), but which, in truth, the press doesn’t get to cover that often. In other words, newspapers are much more likely to see the arts story as “news.” The visual arts and music community, moreover, has been fired up for years about the impact NCLB is supposedly having on their programs, and the NAEP report went right to the heart of that issue. The CEP report, on the other hand, may have lost out simply because No Child Left Behind is out of the spotlight now.

Another, more troubling factor: There just aren’t as many of us education reporters around anymore. Newspapers are laying people off left and right, leaving coverage of major reports and studies like these in the hands of…..well, who? Maybe nobody. A decade ago, many major metropolitan dailies had teams of ed reporters that were at least five, and in some cases, 10 staffers deep, Lori Crouch, the assistant director of the Education Writers Association, told me. Today, a few papers may have three or four staffers, but many of them have staffs that have withered down to only one or two ed reporters, who are supposed to cover everything—a steady stream of local school developments, state policies, and national news. Forced to choose between a local issue, like budget shortfalls, contact negotiations, a superintendent’s hiring, etc., (for most newspapers, these issues are their franchise) and a report issued from D.C. (even from a reputable source) many will go local. Many of the holdout reporters are juggling more duties than ever before, she noted—particularly online and in multimedia. Interestingly, a lot of small and mid-sized papers have kept the number of their ed staffers relatively stable, though most of them had only one or two to begin with, Crouch said. Given losses in the newspaper industry, perhaps other media can pick up some of the slack: I heard a lot of local radio and TV reporters from across the country during a conference call on the CEP’s report.

The loss of objective news coverage is, of course, an issue that goes well beyond education reporting. A lot of smart ed policy people, in D.C. and across the country, will be disheartened to know that newspapers aren’t covering what could be very important national studies and reports as often, and in as much depth. After all, many of these studies offer valuable insights, not to mention precious hard data, on the issues affecting students and parents in school districts around the nation. If reporters aren’t there to help the public interpret the documents, who will? And as education coverage declines, what can be done about it?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.

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