By means of selective sampling, it has been possible for evaluators to determine just how well US schools are teaching art.
Tests were given first in 1974-1975 and again in 1978-1979 to 9-, 13-, and 17 -year-olds.
The exams were given and scored in such a way as to judge, in general, how a certain age group performed, but not to rate individual students. This made it possible for evaluators to make some generalizations. For example:
''Students can recognize features of works, themes, and main ideas in artworks when they are given multiple-choice questions about them. And skill in this area increases with age.''
On the other hand: ''Most students do not know how to perceive and respond to works of art well enough to apprehend either their sensory qualities or their structures. Even those with the most art instruction are not much better than the rest.
These findings are part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The art educators who wrote the final report, making the generalized judgments about the state of art instruction in the US, are Laura Chapman, Ronald Silverman, and Brent Wilson.
Their report, ''Art and Young Americans, 1974-1979,'' may be ordered from the Education Commission of the States, 1860 Lincoln St., Denver, Colo. 80295, ($8. 90).
The authors suggest a reason 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds did so poorly on tests that asked them to ''do'' some art, criticize art, and recognize major art works.
''In elementary schools,'' they explain, ''so little art is taught by specialists and so few older students take art courses that we cannot expect many students to have a basic education in the subject of art - especially art history or criticism.''
The report cites the following statistic to back up that judgment:
Seldom did as many as half the students recognize famous works or know when, where, or by whom they were created.''
Apparently the tests showed more enthusiasm for art by the younger children, with declining interest and time spent ''doing'' art as the students moved into high school.
One item on the test required that the 13- and 17-year old students produce a drawing of an angry person showing either a complete figure or just the upper body and head.
It seems that more than 90 percent used at least one facial feature to show anger, but few students used devices to help show anger, and almost no students used expressive lines in their drawings.
The authors' conclusion: ''The overall acceptable levels of peformance are low on this exercise.''
On one test of analytical ability all three age groups did particularly poorly. Each student was given a card on which two reproductions of paintings had been mounted.
Painting A was a late 19th-century work (an arrangement of flowers) by Monticelli. This painting is heavily impasted and brightly colored with the individual flowers suggested more by colors and textures than by delineation.
Painting B, by the 17th-century Dutch painter, Bollingier, contains well-delineated flowers, but with much more subdued colors than Painting A.
The students were asked to give three ways that Painting A differed from Painting B.
Only 7.3 percent of the 9-year-olds, as might well be expected, gave ''acceptable'' answers; yet only 21.3 percent of the 13-year-olds and 30.1 percent of the 17-year-olds could answer this question satisfactorily.
Throughout the report, the authors make the same point repeatedly - not enough art is taught to US schoolchildren. Not enough drawing skill is taught, pupils aren't regularly exposed to art criticism, even museum trips are on the decline.
These assessment tests were given to less than 100,000 pupils in any one school year. Because of the sampling technique used, children in school districts that had recently emphasized ''schooling through the arts'' were lumped in with districts that had cut back on art in favor of the three R's. Hence, no comparison between districts were made.
What the report's authors wish would happen is that art would take a more dominant place in the full K-12 curriculum, and then the next assessment would be able to tell what progress has (or has not) been made in the intervening years.