The hidden sides of NAEP: girls, art, and empowerment

Everyone who works in the education world—from researchers and policymakers, to teachers and school board members—is familiar with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly called the “Nation’s Report Card.” Every two years, scores from the NAEP on reading and mathematics tell us what students across the country and in every state know and can do. NAEP also paints a picture of progress over time in our children’s proficiency in these subjects and the degree to which race- and income-based gaps in educational achievement are narrowing. (For the record, we have continued to make progress on both subjects, and those gaps are narrowing, albeit much more slowly than we want or need them to.)

But even those of us who rely on NAEP, whether for research or policymaking purposes or otherwise, are probably a lot less conversant with other aspects of the assessments. In the past few weeks, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees and manages NAEP, unveiled two new sets of findings that illuminate key realities relevant to children’s futures and provide important guidance for policy and practice. They could not be more timely.

Last week, the Board hosted an event at the Kennedy Center to discuss the results of the 2016 NAEP arts assessment. Every decade since 1997, eighth graders have been assessed for their skills in music and visual arts, the latter including both what they know about art and how well they can practice it. The good news, if you can call it that, is that our children haven’t lost ground on scores despite major cuts to art programs during the big recession; overall, they have held fairly steady since the last arts NAEP, in 2008.

But the data also reveal some real concerns. Our teens are not very “fluent” in art. For example, when they listened to a simple solo melody, only half could identify the instrument as a clarinet (versus a saxophone or oboe). Just one quarter of students could explain what two self-portraits by different artists had in common, and only a tiny fraction—three percent—could create a self-portrait that was deemed “sufficient” in its depiction of the student’s characteristics and mood and his or her use of color and technique. This should probably come as no surprise. Not only do we as a nation not treat art as a core component of a solid education, students’ access to art in school varies widely: only 42 percent of students took an art class in 2015, down from 45 percent in 2008, and across the South that share falls to 35 percent. While more students take music classes, those are also nowhere near universal, and more than half of students reported not having a dedicated room in their school in which to study it.

NAGB produced videos of arts-oriented schools in Boston, Tacoma, Washington, Winston-Salem, and the Red Lake Indian reservation in Minnesota, which reveal the powerful impacts of art-from dance to glass-blowing-on children’s academic skills, engagement with school and peers, their self-confidence, and their odds of graduating high school and going on to successful post-secondary lives. They also make clear that our failure to make art a higher education priority is wasteful and, frankly, incomprehensible.

NAEP’s findings around science are more commonly known, but their collection of “contextual data both in and out of the classroom” that help explain black girls’ interests and abilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is not. So the Board has created its own “Hidden Figures” page to call attention to exactly those factors. As is true of the connection between exposure to the arts and scores on assessments, African American girls who have access to the right resources—tools to experiment with both in and out of the classroom, family members with whom they discussed academic matters, and a desire to obtain a job in a STEM field—score higher on the assessments. For those who have seen the movie that inspired this project, the thought of failing to nurture the next woman who will design a critically needed computer system or calculate the trajectory of a rocket ship is terrible, so those shaping education policy and access to these resources should pay attention.

Unfortunately, these realities that NAGB spotlights—declining access to musical instruments at school, fewer teachers creating portfolios of their students’ art, inconsistent access for vulnerable and talented students to the tools they need to get creative and empowered, and the wholesale failure of school systems across entire swaths of the richest nation on earth to ensure that every child has a solid and whole education—are too often dismissed as luxuries that schools should focus on in good times, but can afford to drop when budgets are tight. Budgets are always tight. Times can always get better. These are not luxuries we can forego, but necessities we can ill afford to.