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High School Music, NCLB Mainly Exist in Harmony, Study Finds

It's a popular refrain: High-stakes testing brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has squeezed out the arts as schools focus on the core academic subjects that are assessed by standardized exams.

But a new study suggests NCLB and the arts may be able to exist in harmony, at least when it comes to average course-taking rates in one subject (music electives) and one level of education (high school). Overall, public high school music enrollment rates have remained flat for about three decades, with approximately one third of students taking at least one music elective prior to graduation. However, participation rates  for several minority groups declined in the wake of the passage of the law.

"Music educators often worry that all new educational policy is deleterious to music, yet a more nuanced approach to policy, undergirded by empirical evaluations of existing policy, is needed to inform the profession," wrote study author Kenneth Elpus, an assistant professor in music education at the University of Maryland,College Park.

Past research on NCLB and music education suggested that the law had weakened music programs. However, unlike most previous research on this topic, this latest study was not based on principal surveys or interviews with music teachers. Instead, Elpus combed through 229,830 high school transcripts from nationally-representative, federal data collected in 10 different years between 1982 and 2009. He used this data to conduct a quantitative analysis of high school music elective enrollment over time. The  peer-refereed Journal of Research in Music Education published an article based on the study on May 20th.

Elpus found that about one third of public high school students take at least one music class prior to graduation, a rate that remained stable between 1982 and 2009. During that same period, the percentage of graduating students who had taken four years of music actually increased, growing from 5 percent to 9 percent.  

"[I]t should be heartening for most music teachers to learn that a core group of just over one third of all U.S. high school students, for nearly 30 years, has consistently chosen to enroll in a music class," Elpus wrote. "That music teachers reach over one in three of all high school students with at least some courses should encourage music teachers to consider carefully the breadth as well as depth of their curricular offerings, bearing in mind that 10 percent or more of all students are likely to pursue a nonperformance class."

For those who value the arts, other findings were less heartening. Hispanics are both the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. They already were under-represented in high school music electives prior to the NCLB law, with 28 percent  of Hispanic members of the class of 1982 taking at least one music class in 1982 as compared to 34 percent overall. These rates of Hispanic music enrollment had been flat for years. But when NCLB was enacted, Hispanic participation rates declined. Just over 22 percent of Hispanic members of the class of 2009 took at least one music elective, as compared to 34 percent overall.

Even before the enactment of the NCLB law, English-learners' music enrollment rates were on the decline. The decline increased immediately after the law was passed.

Special education students were among the most severely under-represented subgroups prior to NCLB, with 18 percent of the the class of 1982 enrolled in at least one music elective, as compared to 34 percent overall. However, special education participation rates were also on the rise. That changed with the passage of the NCLB law, when special education music enrollment rates again declined.

 "The precise mechanism through which these students were excluded from music courses remains an open question," Elpus wrote. "It is possible that school administrators, responding to consequential accountability pressures, systematically denied access to music courses for these subgroups in favor of courses more closely aligned with the high-stakes test. ...This may have occurred through specific targeting of students within schools for enrollment in remedial course work or in the elimination or reduction of music programs in schools with higher concentrations of students in these subgroups."

Elpus concluded his article by urging researchers to continue to study the influence of education policies on music education.

"Although education policies are rarely focused exclusively on music education, music educators and music education researchers should remain conversant in education policy trends and proposals to understand their potential effects on the status and quality of music education in the nation," he wrote.

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