What does 'p' in music mean? Twenty percent of US students know.

A report card on arts education released Monday shows room for improvement.

Half of American eighth-graders can tell that a clarinet is playing the solo when they listen to the opening passage of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

That's one finding of "The Nation's Report Card: Arts 2008" – the first snapshot since 1997 of students' performance in music and visual arts.

The report shows little change in arts participation and achievement. For instance, 57 percent of the students attended schools with music instruction at least three or four times a week in 2008, and 47 percent had access to visual arts instruction that often. These figures show no statistically significant difference from those in 1997.

But on a national test, there were continued gaps in scores among socioeconomic and racial groups, as well as low scores on some test items. Those findings leave arts advocates concerned about the quantity and quality of instruction.

The report card "invites some hard questions ... that can help raise the bar for arts education," said Patrice Walker Powell, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, during the event releasing the report Monday. "Why are we seeing lackluster levels of student achievement in some fundamental areas of music and visual-arts learning? Are we providing [arts specialists in schools] with enough training and support to reach all students?"

As states and school boards struggle with competing demands amid the economic downturn, she added, "We must be vigilant about the availability and application of [arts] resources across all demographic groups, including disadvantaged communities."

One particular concern: Fewer students reported visiting an art museum or exhibit with their class at least once during the year – 16 percent in 2008 versus 22 percent in 1997.

In a statement, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the value of arts in the learning process. The report card, he said, is a reminder that "the arts are ... important to American students gaining the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed in higher education and the global marketplace – skills that increasingly demand creativity, perseverance, and problem solving combined with performing well as part of a team."

The report did find some promising changes. For example, in the classroom, more teachers asked students to write about their own artwork: 27 percent of students did so, up from 21 percent in '97. That could be indicative of "a larger awareness ... about the breadth of arts curriculum," says Barry Shauck, president of the National Art Education Association in Reston, Va. "As a result of the reflection they do ... their own work becomes that much richer."

The report card is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests a wide range of subjects over time. In a nationally representative sample last year of 7,900 public- and private-school eighth-graders, about half were assessed in music and half in visual arts.

On a 300-point scale, average scores ranged from about 105 for the lowest-scoring group to 194 for the highest. On "creating tasks" such as drawing a self-portrait, the average score was 52 out of 100.

Examples shed some light on the scores. In music, 52 percent of students could identify Africa as the region of origin for a musical excerpt and describe a characteristic of the music's style. Only 20 percent identified that "p," when printed on a page of music, stands for the piano dynamic marking and signals to play softly.

In visual arts, 53 percent could describe differences in certain parts of an artist's self-portrait, but only 19 percent could connect the characteristics of the portrait with what the artist was trying to communicate.

Because of changes in scoring procedures, only the multiple-choice portions of the 1997 and 2008 tests could be compared. Students did slightly better in music in 2008, but in visual arts there were no significant differences.

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