National arts test scores offer clouded picture

WASHINGTON — Can you identify the musical instrument whose solo begins Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue?”

Half the country’s eighth graders could, correctly answering “clarinet” on national tests.

Results were issued Monday for music and art, assessments last given to students in 1997. Yet the report raises more questions than it answers.

It says, for example, that music and art are more available to students than in 1997, but it doesn’t say how many students are taking music and art classes. It doesn’t say how kids are doing in dance and theater, because there wasn’t enough money to test on those subjects and because a small number of schools offer them.

And it doesn’t say how the recession and budget cuts rippling through the nation’s schools are affecting arts education.

“The debate that has to happen now is, what is the value of music and arts in K through 12 education?” said Eileen Weiser, a classical pianist and a member of the board that oversees the tests.

“If it’s not assessed, it may not be valued. If it’s not valued, it may not be taught,” she said.

The scores come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the benchmark of how students perform across the country. NAEP measures how kids do in math, reading, science and a half-dozen other subjects.

Results in the arts are based on tests given last year to 7,900 eighth grade students from 260 public and private schools. Half were assessed in music, half in visual arts.

Another unanswered question is how kids fared last year compared with how they did in 1997. Researchers cautioned that most of the scores could not be compared because scoring procedures have changed.

One exception is multiple-choice questions, like the one about “Rhapsody in Blue.” Those results can be compared, and they show that students did about the same as in 1997.

On music questions, 51 percent gave correct answers, down from 53 percent in 1997. And on visual arts questions, 42 percent gave correct answers, the same as in 1997.

Questions ranged from identifying an octave interval or the correct time signature to identifying examples of 20th-century western art or Renaissance painting.

As in 1997, there was wide disparity between the scores of white and Asian students and those of black and Hispanic students. And girls did better than boys.

On a 300-point scale:

— Scores of white and Asian kids were around 30 points higher in music and art than those of black and Hispanic kids. The gap was about the same in 1997.

— Girls did 10 points better in music and art than boys. Girls did 20 points better in music and about 8 points better in art in 1997.

The assessments may also be used in the debate over the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. NAEP scores often are interpreted by critics and supporters alike as supporting their positions.

Critics insist the 2002 law has pushed music and art out of the classroom because of the high-stakes reading and math tests required under the law. And supporters point out a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, showing that teachers spent roughly the same amount of time on the arts before and after the law was passed.