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NAEP Paints Poor Picture of Arts Savvy

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 18, 1998 6 min read

Not only are too many of America’s students lagging in the three R’s; most cannot draw, dance, act, or play a musical instrument adequately and have not acquired a deep understanding of the arts, according to the first national arts assessment in 20 years.

While many of the 8th graders who were tested could provide basic analysis and show some skill in describing and creating music, visual art, and theatrical pieces, few could answer in-depth questions or complete more challenging tasks, says the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1997 Arts Report Card. The Department of Education released the results here last week.

For More Information

Copies of the NAEP arts assessment may be ordered, free of charge, by calling (800) 972-4327. The report is also on the available at A CD-ROM, which offers more examples of student work in the three assessed areas, will be available later this school year.

The report spells bad news for the state of arts education, some educators and policymakers say.

“This NAEP assessment verifies that most American children are infrequently or never given serious instruction or performance opportunities in music, the arts, or theater. That’s wrong,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a press conference marking the release.

While 81 percent of the schools participating in the assessment said that their students are taught music at least once a week, only 25 percent of the 8th graders tested reported actually singing or playing an instrument at least once a week. A little more than half the students could identify a half-note, about 45 percent could pick up at least two specific errors in a performance of the song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and fewer than one-fourth could play the opening phrases of “Ode to Joy” on a keyboard.

Though educators and arts advocates lamented the lack of commitment to arts education for all children as indicated by the report, they said NAEP could give the subjects a boost.

“What gets measured is valued. This shows the arts can be assessed and measured,” said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the administration of naep.

Critics have argued that national testing, which typically relies on multiple-choice questions, cannot amply judge what students know and are able to do in the arts, which are so dependent on performance and the manipulation of various media. But the NAEP arts assessment stretched those limits, officials said, by using technology--video, audio, and the Internet--to test students on both knowledge and performance.

Weakness in Curriculum?

Arts advocates hope that the poor test results will drive home the message that the arts can no longer be treated as an elective.

“We are constantly bombarded by the sights, sounds, and symbols of mass communication: television, radio, computers, the Internet, pagers, faxes,” said Bill Ivey, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided $1.2 million toward the $11 million assessment project. “Children must be able to decode images, sounds, and symbols. Children will need the ability to analyze and evaluate complex visual and aural messages and make critical judgments.”

The test was given to 6,600 8th graders at 268 public and private schools around the country--a much smaller sample than is generally targeted in other NAEP subjects because arts instruction is not universally offered. An assessment was also created for dance but was not administered because a statistically suitable sample could not be located. Only about 7 percent of schools reported that 8th graders participate regularly in dance classes.

Students received scores in three areas: responding, or analyzing, describing, and interpreting works of art; creating original art; and performing or re-creating existing works of art.

The test included multiple-choice and short-answer questions that explored students’ understanding of various art forms. Students were also asked to sing, play instruments, act in theatrical improvisations, and create visual art using several media.

In general, the students who had received more instruction and practice in the arts did significantly better on all parts of the exam--written and performance--than those who did not.

One part of the test asked students to interpret “Pittsburgh Memories,” a collage by Romare Bearden. Students then created their own collage of a place in their own memory and provided a written evaluation of the work. Most students could not adequately answer many of the questions about the artist’s collage, and just 6 percent of the students’ artwork was rated as “effective” or “adequate.”

As in the NAEP tests in reading and writing, girls generally scored higher than boys, and white students generally did better than their black peers. Unlike other assessments, however, there were no significant differences in the scores of students in public and private schools.

“The report points to a definite weakness in the curriculum,” said Thomas M. Brewer, the director of art education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Charles Leonhard, who wrote several books on the status of arts education as the director of the National Arts Education Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before his retirement in 1995, said there have been signs for years that arts education was diminishing.

“I started warning the arts professionals about this in the early 1980s,” Mr. Leonhard said. “Everyone thought that when the new standards came out, the reduction in arts education would stop.”

But Mr. Leonhard contends that the voluntary national arts standards, written by national arts organizations in 1994, have only contributed to the decline by ignoring the main purpose of the arts--"to foster talent and a love of the arts.”

But arts groups, like the national arts endowment and the National Art Education Association, have promoted the national standards as a way to ensure more consistent arts education throughout the country.

Setting Priorities

The congressionally mandated NAEP is the only ongoing, nationally representative survey of what U.S. students know and are able to do in several core subjects.

The NAEP assessed music in 1972 and 1978 and the visual arts in 1975 and 1979. On those tests, students’ artwork or performance was judged only on a limited basis. The latest arts assessment was initially scheduled for 1996, but was delayed a year because of a lack of federal funds. It was also scaled back to include only 8th graders; originally, 4th and 12th graders were also to be included. The next arts assessment is not scheduled until 2007. (“Money Woes Delay NAEP Art Exam, Cut Math Data,” Nov. 30, 1994.)

The disappointing results and the scaling-back of the assessment, Mr. Brewer said, “to some extent mirror the value placed on arts and visual arts education” by policymakers. “It’s a matter of funding and policy as much as anything else.”

Mr. Brewer, who is also chairman of the research committee for the Reston, Va.-based NAEA, said the report should be used as an advocacy tool for improving arts education.

Some states and districts that reduced or eliminated their arts curriculum the past decade as part of budget cuts, most notably New York City, are beginning to reinstate the programs.

But some on Capitol Hill suggested last week that while arts education is important, money and effort should first focus on the academic basics, especially literacy.

“First things first,” said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House on Education and the Workforce Committee. “We need to make the basic investments first, and they are helping children read and write.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1998 edition of Education Week as NAEP Paints Poor Picture of Arts Savvy


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