National report card on arts education shows need for more instruction

Part of the visual arts assessment required students to draw a self-portrait.
Part of the visual arts assessment required students to draw a self-portrait.
Courtesy of NAEP

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Arts education in America got a report card Tuesday. The grades aren’t great, and they haven’t improved much since the last assessment in 2008.

But there is at least one bright spot: Latino students are narrowing the achievement gap between them and white students.

The evaluation comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which also tracks student proficiency in math, reading and science. In music, students averaged at 147 out of 300 points, and in visual arts, 149 out of 300 -- very similar to the results eight years prior.

"That's where we are, and we haven't seen any progress over time, unless students were clearly exposed to course taking and did some things outside of school," said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the assessment.

Logically, students who received more arts instruction performed better. Carr believes that was the key factor behind the narrowing achievement gap between white and Latino students. 

Courtesy of NAEP

The responses to the national assessment come from 8,800 eighth-graders from 280 schools in 2016, so there isn't a wide enough sample for a state-by-state breakdown. Nationally, 63 percent of eighth graders took a music class and 42 percent took a visual art class in 2016. 

But this report adds to a growing pot of data around arts education. Last fall, the California Department of Education, along with the statewide arts education collaborative createCA, launched a database capturing arts enrollment at the secondary level. At the middle school level, the data show just 21 percent of students in the state enrolled in music and 11 percent in visual art.

An arts data project is underway in L.A. County schools. 

Some local arts educators aren't sure that the national trends captured in the NAEP report reflect California's story. 

Mike Stone, head of visual and performing arts for the Bakersfield School District and former head of the California Music Education Association, questions the testing methods.

"The test results seem to be implying that children are succeeding or not succeeding based on a very narrow area of assessment," Stone said.

In both the visual art and music categories, students were asked a combination of multiple choice, or written or drawn responses that tested technical and art creation skills. In visual art, this included drawing a self-portrait. For music, students were asked to identify written notes, the sounds of various instruments and to complete musical phrases. 

"Those kind of skills that we teach in a choir class, a performance class, or a band class, cannot be truly assessed through that kind of summative assessment," Stone said. "You can't judge a beautiful phrase based on a paper-pencil test."

Testing in arts education is a controversial subject. This assessment dates back to 1997 and may not have caught up to updates in individual state arts standards. It also does not include labels for "basic," "proficient," and "advanced," like with the assessments NAEP administers in other areas. 

"I think the conundrum that we have with this assessment is that we know what students are able to do relative to what we ask them to do,"  Peggy Carr with the National Center for Education Statistics said. "But what's missing is what's good enough for this population of students."

No matter how complete the picture is, Laura Smyth, program director with the California Alliance for Arts Education, said she’s happy to see a national spotlight shed on arts education, especially amidst shifts in federal education policy. 

"This is something we can talk about and think about and start asking new questions about," said Smyth. "And that’s way better than nothing."

Explore the report here.