National report card gives arts education mixed marks

When it comes to arts education, US public schools are not making the honor roll.

That's the conclusion arts advocates are drawing from the results of a 1997 assessment recently released by the United States Department of Education. While most supporters find the fact that the government is doing arts testing on a national level highly encouraging - the last time an evaluation of achievement in the arts took place was in the 1970s - many add that the results highlight how short arts education in most US public schools falls.

For education policymakers, that's cause for concern. "In this age of information and when our economy is increasingly built on generating ideas, it is a serious mistake to shortchange our children's instruction in the arts," said US Secretary of Education Richard Riley, commenting on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) arts test. "At a time when creativity and communication skills are at a premium, arts should be used for their rich potential to captivate and engage students in the process of learning."

Conclusions arts educators are drawing from the test results include:

* A wide gap exists between the number of arts courses offered and the number of students who actually participate. A survey taken as part of the testing shows that although 81 percent of schools say they teach music at least once a week, only 1 in 4 eighth-graders tested say they either sing or play an instrument as often as once a week.

* The creative faculties most need bolstering. Eighth-graders tested were strongest when it came to responding to the art of others, but weakest when it came to expressing their own thoughts and feelings by creating art.

* Creativity is not just an innate gift but can be taught. Those students who were receiving instruction in the arts did noticeably better on creative portions of the test than those who were not.

About 6,660 eighth-graders in 268 schools across the country were tested in the areas of music, visual arts, and theater. The students were asked to respond to multiple-choice questions after such activities as reading part of a play, looking at a work of art, or hearing a piece of music. They were also asked to write and perform music, create a collage, and do improvisational acting.

(A dance segment had been scheduled but had to be dropped because so few US schools teach dance that it was impossible to find a statistically significant sample of students to test.)

NAEP has been monitoring national achievement in core academic subjects since the 1970s, and "it's important for the arts to be in that set of subjects,", says Doug Herbert, director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts. The development of the tests used by NAEP was funded by the NEA in collaboration with the Getty Center for Education in the Arts.

Results reveal that more needs to be done to cultivate creativity - a skill that is essential for future job holders.

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