NAEP Finds Schools’ Offerings in Arts Hold Steady

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 15, 2009 4 min read
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About the same share of 8th graders attend schools where music and visual-arts instruction are offered as a decade ago—a proportion that accounts for only about half the nation’s schoolchildren at that age.

That’s according to results from the first administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in arts in 11 years.

The NAEP report, which was scheduled for release this week, shows that 57 percent of 8th graders in 2008 attended schools where music instruction was provided at least three or four times a week, while 47 percent went to schools where visual-arts instruction was offered at least as often. The percentages don’t differ significantly from those in 1997.

The findings don’t provide evidence to fuel “a concern expressed that schools are cutting out music or other arts,” said Stuart Kerachsky, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the branch of the U.S. Department of Education that produced the report.

Educators have contended that other subjects have taken a hit since the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act 7½ years ago. The federal law requires testing in reading, mathematics, and, more recently, science.

Arts Knowledge 'Middling'

Eighth graders taking the arts NAEP in 2008 demonstrated uneven levels of knowledge about the subject matter.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

At the same time, Mr. Kerachsky noted that a limitation of the study is that it gives information only about school offerings, as reported by administrators, not about how many students in those schools actually take part in arts education.

“Given the concern that the arts are being neglected, we can’t say definitively that they are not,” he added.

Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, said the proportion of 8th graders going to schools that regularly offer arts instruction “isn’t all that satisfactory. We would like it to be 100 percent, of course.”

“Quality is just as important as access,” he added. “We need to ask what it is that is being provided three or four times a week.”

Outside Activities

A separate report about the arts, which was set for release this week by the endowment, finds that a majority of children do not take part in certain arts activities outside of school.

Only 13.2 percent of parents with school-age children said their children had ever taken private arts lessons, according to the endowment report, which provides findings from a survey of more than 18,000 adults conducted as a supplement to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. Only a third of parents with 5- to 17-year-olds said their children had attended a music, theater, or dance performance outside school.

In music, the 8th graders’ NAEP scores ranged from 105 to 194 on a 300-point scale. In visual arts, scores ranged from 104 to 193. The section of the assessment for which students created their own works of art was scored on a 100-point scale. The average score was 52.

The NAEP report provides some examples of what 8th graders showed on the test that they know and can do. Seventy-one percent, for example, correctly identified a symphony orchestra as the type of musical group that plays a musical work. More than half of students tested correctly described differences in how particular parts of an artist’s self-portrait were drawn.

“We’re not making any statement about where they should be,” said Mr. Kerachsky. Unlike for subjects such as mathematics and reading, which NAEP regularly tests, “we don’t know enough about 8th grade arts to know where students should be or where we’d like them to be,” he said.

But Mr. Iyengar characterized the test as showing “middling results across the board.” He noted that large percentages of students were not scoring above average on the test.

In both music and the visual arts, the NAEP report says, scores were 22 to 32 points higher on a 300-point scale for white and Asian/Pacific Islander students than they were for black and Hispanic students. Mr. Kerachsky said the 1997 NAEP in the arts showed a similar gap between racial and ethnic groups.

The achievement gap in the arts between different racial and ethnic groups mirrors the gaps in other subjects tested by NAEP.

More needs to be known about the resources in schools and qualifications of personnel who deliver arts instruction before drawing conclusions, which is beyond the scope of NAEP, Mr. Kerachsky said.

He added, however, that the NCES soon plans to conduct fast-response surveys of arts administrators or providers, including music specialists, principals, and classroom teachers, to understand better what such programs offer. The surveys will ask about the curriculum and staff qualifications, for instance.

NAEP scores were significantly higher in music for students attending suburban, town, or rural schools as opposed to city schools. In the visual arts, scores were significantly higher at suburban schools rather than city schools.

Scores for students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, a common measure of poverty, scored significantly lower in both music and visual arts than those who weren’t eligible.

The report also shows a gender difference. Average scores for girls were 10 points higher than for boys in music and 11 points higher in visual arts.

The percentage of 8th graders who reported participating in some kinds of school arts activities increased from 1997 to 2008, but it decreased for other kinds of activities, the report says.

For example, the proportion of students asked to write about their own artwork rose from 21 percent to 27 percent during that period, but the proportion of students who reported visiting an art museum, gallery, or exhibit with their classes at least once a year decreased from 22 percent to 16 percent.

A representative national sample of 3,900 8th graders were assessed in visual arts, and 4,000 8th graders were tested in music. The assessment took place in 2008.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as NAEP Finds Schools’ Offerings in Arts Hold Steady


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