Taking Note: A Sobering Reminder that Access & Opportunity Precede Achievement

By Ayanna Hudson, Arts Education Director, and Sunil Iyengar, Director of Research & Analysis, National Endowment for the Arts
Row of paintbrushes with different colored handles

Paintbrushes by flickr user John Morgan

On April 25, 2017, the U.S. Department of Education released the 2016 National Assessment of Educational Progress in the Arts (NAEP), otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card. This Report Card gives a snapshot of how eighth-grade students across the country performed on achievement tests in music and visual arts education.

The tests comported with national teaching standards for these arts subjects. In this way the NAEP proves that learning in the arts is measurable: the arts can be assessed. In fact, since the last NAEP in 2008, the NEA has released a report on arts assessment and provided grants to the State Education Agencies Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) to help educators better understand how to assess student learning in the arts.

So, how did the eighth-graders of 2016 fare on the NAEP, compared with the eighth-graders who tested in 2008? The good news is that, in aggregate, students showed no declines in music and visual arts achievement. Both groups of students scored, on average, near the middle of the achievement range. On a scale of 0-300 for each subject, the 2016 cohort earned an average score of 147 in music and 149 in visual arts. There was no significant difference in these scores relative to the 2008 cohort, nor were there differences by percentile. If the 2016 results are middling, then so were results from eight years ago.

Viewed from one angle, even mediocre test scores for the nation’s eighth graders (in 2008 and 2016) are no small feat, given wide variability in access to arts programming in many schools and neighborhoods throughout the country. Unlike the NAEP for math or reading, the NAEP in arts education tests for achievement in subjects not universally taught in middle school. Only 42 percent of eighth-graders had taken a visual arts course in the last year.

The results for music were rather better, but still sub-optimal: only 63 percent of the students assessed were taking a music class. (On the other hand, 84 percent of schools reported having a full-time specialist available to teach music to eighth-graders, while 74 percent said they had a full-time specialist available to teach visual arts.) These numbers have not budged since the 2008 assessment.

Perhaps more tellingly, student engagement with music and visual arts outside school has declined in some respects. In 2016, about 67 percent of students had listened to a musical performance in a theater—down from 72 percent in 2008. The share of eighth graders who took art classes outside school dipped from 16 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2016. Forty-nine percent of 2016 students saved their artwork in a portfolio, in contrast to 54 percent of 2008 students.

As in 2008, achievement gaps persist for student subgroups: boys typically scored lower than girls; blacks and Hispanics lower than whites; and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches scored lower than those who were ineligible. Even here, one finds some cause for hope. Although the achievement gap between white and black students has held steady, the score gap between whites and non-white Hispanics narrowed in 2016, driven in part by significant growth in Hispanics’ music scores from 2008 to 2016. In visual arts, Asians and Pacific Islanders scored higher than did whites in 2016, creating for the first time an achievement gap between the two groups.

As with arts achievement, arts access and participation varied widely by socio-demographic or regional subgroup. One of the starkest differences emerges when comparing male and female students. For decades, we at the NEA have seen our national surveys return results showing that men participate in arts activities at far lower rates than women. The habit starts early: according to the new NAEP, fewer than half (46 percent) of eighth-grade boys reported talking with their family and friends about music. Among girls, that share was 64 percent. Sticking just with music, the NAEP also revealed that comparatively fewer boys than girls played an instrument outside schoolwork, or even agreed to the statement that they possess musical talent!

Students who had received visual arts education at least once or twice a week outperformed, by an average of 12 points, students who were not taught the subject. Roughly the same score difference obtained for students who had had an eighth-grade music class, in comparison with students who had not. And these statistics don’t begin to account for the relative benefits associated with out-of-school or after-school arts experiences. The NAEP Data Explorer permits anyone to study variations in average test scores, for music and visual arts education, by a host of factors, including frequency of arts instruction.

It should be obvious that students lacking access to opportunities for musical and visual arts education will demonstrate comparatively lower levels of arts achievement. Indeed, during the event to unveil the NAEP results, National Center for Education Statistics Acting Commissioner Peggy Carr stressed that students who participated in visual arts and/or music activities, in or out of school, tended to score higher than did other eighth-graders.

At the NEA, we work hard every day to address the gaps in access and participation. The agency makes Arts Education grants to communities nationwide. Fifty percent of these grantees are located in high-poverty communities. These projects increase student knowledge and skills in the arts, describe methods that will be used to assess student learning in the arts, strengthen the practice of educators and leaders, and fundamentally transform systems and communities so that millions of students have continuous opportunities to study the arts.

At the same time, we recognize these stubborn gaps and realize that much more needs to be done. In pursuit of better results, the NEA is aligning its work with the Arts Education Partnership’s 2020 Action Agenda, a series of goals and strategies “for the collective action of partners all across the country, to move closer toward the goal that, by the year 2020, every young person in America, at every grade level, will have equitable access to high-quality arts learning opportunities, both during the school day and out-of-school time.”

Furthermore, while the 2016 Nation’s Report Card gives us an important glimpse into the nature of student access to the arts, the NEA is preparing to select a partner organization that will design tools and resources with the aim of helping every state to report, on an ongoing and consistent basis, student participation in the arts. We want to equip parents, school district and community leaders, classroom teachers, teaching artists, arts organizations, business leaders, colleges, universities, state education agencies, and state arts agencies with up-to-date information about who has access to the arts and who does not. This knowledge will enable communities everywhere to develop and implement targeted strategies that address inequities and measure progress over time.

There remains much work ahead, but we dare not stop until every student in America is engaged and empowered through an excellent arts education.