NAfME Analysis on the NAEP Arts Assessment

The NAEP Arts Assessment has been given to a sample of U.S. students on average every 8-10 years, going as far back as the 1970s. The current NAEP uses a framework first designed for the 1997 NAEP Arts Assessment and based on the artistic processes of Creating, Performing and Responding. These same artistic processes have become the foundation for the new set of voluntary national arts standards, the National Core Arts Standards released in June 2014.

Assesment Concept
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On a scale of 0-300 points, students scored on average of 147 on the music assessment.  There is no statistical difference from the 2008 average score for the music assessment of 149.  Female students scored on average 15 points higher than their male peers.  Students not eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) scored 26 points higher on average than students eligible for NSLP.  Students in suburban schools scored 13 points higher on average than those in city schools; and students in private schools scored 13 points higher on average than students in public schools.  These differentials are considered statistically significant.

Along with the assessment questions for students, the NAEP also includes a student questionnaire, asking students about their participation in music both in and outside of the classroom. The percentage of students taking music courses was statistically unchanged from 2008 with about 63 percent of students saying they took a music class.  About 35 percent of Grade 8 students said they played a musical instrument on their own, which is lower than 2008.  14 percent took private music lessons, which is statistically unchanged from 2008.  Two-thirds of the students responded that they listened to a musical performance in a theater, which is lower than 2008. 

Perhaps the most significant change was that while overall scores were statistically unchanged from 2008, the gap in scores between White and Hispanic students narrowed in music from 32 points to 23 points. NAfME and our research community will need to examine some of the contextual reasons for the difference in terms of student performance, as well as this narrowing of the gap between White and Hispanic students. The Black-White achievement gap, however, remained unchanged. While white students scored an average of 158, black students got 129 on the music test and the margin of difference was similar on the arts portion of the exam — 158 for white students and 128 for black students.

Assessing performance requires a collaboration of teacher and students.-Photo courtesy of Christopher Perez
Photo courtesy of Christopher Perez

Mixed Reviews on the Results

Some analysts have taken a neutral view on the statistical similarity on music performance from students over the past 8 years.  After all, one might find optimism in the stability of scores dating from prior to the recession of 2008 to following the most recent Recession.

However, NCES acting commissioner Peggy Carr appeared to share some concern during the unveiling of the results, saying that  “clearly there is room for improvement, because clearly there is a lot of content that students weren’t able to interact with correctly.”  For example, when asked to listen to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” only about half of the students were able to identify that the opening solo is played on a clarinet.

In addition, the NAEP collected significant information on “contextual variables” regarding frequency of instruction and other factors. Some of the most interesting implications of the NAEP will come as education researchers dig more deeply into the ways that data reflect interactions between achievement and environment.

Improving Upon the NAEP

NAfME has supported the NAEP in all of its iterations, and supports this national investment to assess student learning in music and the arts. The 2016 NAEP Assessment was very limited in terms of determining what students know and are able to do in music, as the NAEP only evaluated 8th grade student performance, and only in the area of responding to music. No assessment items covered the performance of music, nor did items cover the creation of music with any depth. A truer picture of what students are capable of doing in music would need to incorporate all of the aspects of musical literacy – creating, responding and performing – and would need to encompass all levels of K-12 education. The 1997 NAEP Arts Framework, from which the 2016 items were created, was built for assessment of all areas of the artistic process model as well as assessment for 4th, 8th and 12th graders.

In addition, the current the sample size only allows for the slicing of data into geographic regions rather than by states.  Since the passage of ESSA and the regulatory process that followed, work has shifted to the states where ESSA state plans are being developed (12 states have already submitted their plans to the Department of Education).  As the states become the pulse for how the new “well-rounded education” definition will benefit music education, the field would be well served to have NAEP data broken down state-by-state, which would mean a larger sample size for the assessment. 

The next NAEP Arts Assessment is slated to be given to students in the field in 2024.  NAfME is currently working in partnership with the National Assessment Governing Board to create a more robust assessment for music education in 2024. 


Tooshar Swain, Policy Advisor, Center for Advocacy, Policy, and Constituency Engagement, April 27, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)