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Nation's Report Card Finds Mixed Grades For U.S. Students In Visual Arts, Music

LA Johnson

For only the third time ever, the government released today a national report card examining the knowledge, understanding and abilities of U.S. eighth-graders in visual arts and music.

And in many ways, the numbers aren't great, with little progress shown in most categories since the last time the assessment was given in 2008. One bright spot: The achievement gap between Hispanic students and their white peers has narrowed. But Hispanics and African-Americans still lag far behind white and Asian eighth-graders.

The findings come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which regularly reports on U.S. student achievement, including math, reading and science. But only three times — in 1997, 2008 and now from 2016 — has it looked at music and visual arts.

Overall, the national scores on arts achievement remained flat when compared with 2008, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of NAEP. "Granted this is not the best score," she said, especially when compared with U.S. students' progress in math. "Math has shown a tremendous improvement."

The arts assessment measured students' knowledge based on their ability to understand and interpret historical pieces of art and music. One question, for example, asked eighth graders to identify the instrument at the beginning of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." (It's a clarinet.)

The report also looked at their creative abilities. In one exercise, students were asked to draw a self-portrait, which was then scored for attention to detail, composition and use of materials.

Students were asked to create an original self-portrait as part of the 2016 NAEP Arts Assessment.
/ Courtesy of NAEP
Courtesy of NAEP
Students were asked to create an original self-portrait as part of the 2016 NAEP Arts Assessment.

The researchers gave the assessments to 8,800 eighth-graders from 280 schools last year. In music, students averaged 150 on a scale of 300 eight years ago, and last year the average score was 147 — not a statistically significant difference.

Visual arts also showed no significant difference, with an average of 150 in 2008 and 149 in 2016.

In terms of participation in arts classes, the study found that fewer than half of eighth graders had taken an arts class that year — 42 percent. That's down from 45 percent in 2008.

Among other key findings:

  • Regional differences: Students in the Northeast outperformed students from all other regions in music and visual arts, with the South performing lowest in visual arts and the West at the bottom on music.
  • Gender differences: As with past assessments, female students outperformed male students in both categories; and the music performance of male students declined significantly from eight years ago.
  • Among students who receive free and reduced-price lunches, performance in visual arts increased, narrowing the gap between those students and their peers who come from higher-income families.
  • Students identified as Asian/Pacific Islanders outscored white students in both music and visual arts for the first time.
  • Eighth-graders reported being less likely to take private art and music lessons than they did in 2008.
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    LA Johnson is an art director and illustrator at NPR. She joined in 2014 and has a BFA from The Savannah College of Art and Design.
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