When the 2019 Nation’s Report Card (aka the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) was released, many policymakers, school leaders, and educators felt that the results were discouraging.

While the first impression may seem gloomy, there is some hope in this year’s NAEP data: eighth-graders who reported taking art courses. They performed significantly higher in both reading and math than their peers who did not, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, economics, and other disadvantages.

In public schools, students taking art courses scored 264 in reading and 283 in math, significantly higher than students not taking any art course.

Art and achievement

NAEP survey questionnaires are administered as part of the assessment. They collect contextual information about students’ opportunities to learn in and out of the classroom. This year, eighth-graders were asked, “Are you taking an art course this school year (for example, drawing, painting, or studio art)?” Nationwide, students who reported taking an art course scored four points higher in reading and five points higher in math than their peers who reported not taking any art course.

The achievement of eighth-graders who reported taking art courses and attend Title I schools that have higher concentrations of low-income students is significant. Among students from schools receiving Title I funds:

  • 36 percent of eighth-graders who reported taking an art course this school year performed at or above NAEP proficiency level in reading and 39 percent in math;
  • Student subgroups (those participating in the National School Lunch Program, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency) that reported taking art courses all performed significantly higher than their peers who reported they were not.

Research on the benefits of arts education

Although achievement gaps still exist, the remarkable result from the 2019 NAEP data suggests that art courses may play a positive role in improving student academic achievement. For decades, researchers have found that:

  • Arts education is associated with lower dropout rates, as well as better academic outcomes;
  • Participating in arts programs can predict students’ school engagement and persistence toward graduation;
  • Taking art courses can help students to develop socioemotional skills valued in social relationships, the workplace, and education settings, such as collaboration and teamwork skills, social tolerance, and self-confidence; and
  • Engaging in arts activities fosters students’ critical/creative thinking and problem-solving skills (National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University, 2017).
   8th-Grade reading 8th-Grade math
  Taking art courses  Not taking art courses Taking art courses  Not taking art courses 
All students   36 28 39 30
National School Lunch Program   22 18 21 18
Students with disabilities   12 7 9 7
English learners   6 2 7 3

Table 1. Percentage of eighth-grade students (from schools that reported receiving Title I funds targeted for eligible students) at or above NAEP proficiency level for their grade in reading and math, by student subgroups: 2019. Data source: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ndecore/xplore/nde 

In a recent study conducted for the Houston Independent School District, researchers even found some causal effects between students’ arts educational experiences and their school performance. Researchers investigated 10,548 students who were enrolled in 42 schools across the Houston area, and concluded that increasing students’ arts educational experiences could

  • reduce the proportion of students receiving a disciplinary infraction by 3.6 percentage points;
  • increase writing achievement by 0.13 of a standard deviation; and
  • increase students’ compassion for others by 0.08 of a standard deviation.

Policy implications

For policymakers, investment in arts programs may have a potentially positive impact on the economy, since arts education can reduce high school dropout and increase graduation rates. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (2011), compared with a high school dropout, a single high school graduate yields a public benefit of over $200,000 more in lower government spending and higher tax revenues. A more recent study in 2016 shows that with a 90 percent graduation rate, the nation would see 65,150 new jobs, $7.2 billion increase in annual earnings, and $1.1 billion increase in federal tax revenue.

For school leaders, investing in arts education is meant to create opportunities for students to learn and reach their potential. According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2018, 51 states have adopted arts education standards for early childhood or prekindergarten, elementary, and/or secondary schools, but only

  • 17 states specify arts education as a requirement for schools to be accredited;
  • 20 states include arts courses as an option to fulfill graduation requirements;
  • 22 states provide funding for an arts education grant program or a state-funded school for the arts; and
  • 29 states define the arts in statute or code as a core or academic subject.

Often, when schools need to cut their budget, the first program to go is the arts. According to a 2009 report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “elementary school teachers at schools identified as needing improvement, those at schools with higher percentages of minority students, and those at schools with higher percentages of students with limited English speaking skills, were significantly more likely to report a decrease in the amount of time spent on arts education compared with teachers at other schools.”

In public education, we believe that all children deserve equal access to an education that encourages them to reach their potential. As evidence shows that arts education works, enriching students’ arts educational experiences becomes relevant to this belief. Policymakers and school leaders should keep in mind that arts education is not only for art’s sake.

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