There was not a lot to cheer about when The Nation's Report Card came out earlier this month. 

The average score of fourth-graders tested for mathematics trended only slightly higher this year compared with those recorded two years ago. Average test scores for eighth-graders trended downward in math, and average reading scores dipped a little for students tested in both grades. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress was first administered in 1969 to measure student achievement on a national basis. It is said to be the largest representative sample of what the "nation's students know and can do in select subjects" based on regular testing since it began. 

While it would appear on its face there is room for improvement, those scores may be less dismal than some seem to believe. The loudest alarms are being rung by those who favor siphoning funds from public schools and sinking them into private and religious schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who refuses to acknowledge findings of numerous studies that show increased funding for education resulted with statistically significant positive results with regard to student outcomes, described the 2019 test results as shocking. DeVos used inaccurate testing terminology to lay out an argument for school choice and further erosion of public school funding when The Nation's Report Card was published earlier this month.

There is a large body of research that shows student outcomes improve when funding is sufficient to provide the educational resources conducive to learning. In addition to the tools of learning, which would include books and technology, that would include classrooms with fewer students and increased interaction with teachers.

Funding levels need to be sufficient to provide courses that go beyond the core curriculum subjects like language, mathematics and science. Policymakers must do more to restore fine arts classes in our public schools, many of which have scuttled those subjects due to funding cuts and the expansion of standardized tests and the accountability demanded by these testing regimes. 

Arts education has been found to be beneficial for students. Among adults, according to an article from The Brookings Institution, participating in artistic endeavors has been found to "contribute to the health of civil society" — adults are more likely to get involved with the arts if they are engaged as adolescents. 

A large-scale trial study of a city's collective efforts to restore arts education recently conducted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University turned up some supporting evidence. The study found "a substantial increase in arts educational experience has remarkable impacts on students' academic, social and emotional outcomes."

Students who experienced arts education exhibited a reduction in disciplinary infractions, an improvement in standardized writing scores, and increased compassion for others compared to those in a control group whose access to arts education was more limited. The study also found students involved with arts education were more engaged at school and exhibited higher aspirations for learning. 

Researchers acknowledge they "generally did not find evidence to suggest significant impacts on students' math, reading or science achievement" scores. But researchers involved in the two-year study say "the most promising outcomes associated with arts education learning objectives extend beyond commonly reported outcomes such as math and reading test scores."

While data are lacking with regard to arts education and test scores, there is a lot of evidence showing the arts improve a student's ability to reason. Abstract thought and critical thinking are qualities that seem to be lacking today in America.

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix. 

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