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Advocates for arts education are in the midst of a counter offensive. Arguing that post-recession budget cuts and Bush-era testing policies have prompted schools to cut art (in order to spend more time prepping kids for math and reading tests), they’ve come up with an idea: convince states to adopt new art standards –à la Common Core — to get schools to focus on art again.

Last year, a coalition of art groups unveiled their new National “Core Arts Standards,” for the teaching of music, visual art, dance and drama. There’s a new emphasis on making cross-disciplinary connections with, say, math or literature — not just learning the notes on your flute. They’ve even added a fifth art category: media arts.

25 States and D.C. required course credits in the arts for high school graduation in 2014

(Use arrows to navigate. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: Arts Education Policies by State 2014, NCES)

Already, three Midwestern states — Arkansas, Kansas and Nebraska — have adopted or are moving to adopt versions of the new standards. And 10 more states are considering it, according to Narric Rome, Vice President of Government Affairs & Arts Education at Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group.

“We’re spending our time on the state level,” said Rome, who says he used to spend more of his time lobbying Capitol Hill and federal agencies. “That’s where we see action for arts education.”

This state activity is catching the attention of the data geeks over at the National Center for Education Statistics, which released a table of Art Education Policies by State in December 2014. The table makes clear that all 50 states already have art standards. Some of them are believed to be 20 years old. But implementation varies considerably. Some states require schools to offer art. Others don’t. In many cases, only a small percentage of students take art classes.

One category that lobbyists like Rome want to boost is the number of states that require students to take at least some sort of art class to graduate from high school. Just 25 and the District of Columbia do now. “We make the argument that a complete education isn’t complete without the arts. One way to have that is to have a graduation requirement,” said Rome.

Rome admits that high school requirements are an imperfect way to promote arts education. California, for example, doesn’t require art for graduation. And yet, Rome says that California has “very good” art education programs in many of its public schools.

Testing: 17 States required assessment of student learning in the arts in 2014

(Use arrows to navigate. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: Arts Education Policies by State 2014, NCES)

The trick for arts advocates is to figure which policy levers to pull that will actually increase funding for art classes and allow more children to take them. On one hand, they could convince state policy makers to test art, which 17 states already do, just like they test math or reading. What gets tested gets taught, after all. And testing can prove to critics that art is a serious subject and not just about gluing popsicle sticks or appreciating music.

But the arts are wary of testing, too. Not only has art been a victim of math and reading tests, but also no one wants to see misguided tests that would ask students to, say, memorize all the impressionist painters.

“That’s the narrow eye of the needle we’ve been trying to get through,” explained Rome. “We don’t want to be part of more testing. But we do think that assessment in the arts is a validation of arts education and why these new standards are important.”

But ultimately, it’s unclear if new standards will mean more art for more students.

What the state data don’t reveal is how many and which students are currently receiving art instruction and how much of it they’re getting. Every decade the federal government issues a large report on arts education throughout the country, Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, and the most recent data from 2010 confirms that low-income schools don’t offer music and visual art as much as high-income schools do. But it’s difficult to tell how much art a typical student is getting. Just because a school offers art doesn’t mean that all students have access to it or are taking advantage of it.

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