The practice of evaluating and reforming public elementary and secondary education using extensive standardized tests has a few problems. Regular readers of this publication are no doubt aware of many of them.

Jacoba Urist over at the Atlantic points out another big problem with schools in New York City:

In April, the office released its first-ever State of the Arts report, finding a big difference between the level of arts education in wealthier and lower-income schools. This has raised fresh questions about how art enhances learning and whether children will be better prepared for a 21st century economy if they have mastered the “soft” skills that art teaches. In an increasingly “creative” economy, the argument goes, students need original thinking to thrive—and then only wealthy New Yorkers are being set up to succeed.

The comptroller’s office analyzed three aspects of arts programing: whether schools have a full- or part-time certified arts teacher; a formal partnership with an arts or culture organization; and a dedicated room for visual arts, music, theater, or dance. When researchers looked for geographic patterns in the data, they found that access to arts education reflects income-inequality trends in the city.

This doesn’t indicate that schools serving poor students can’t afford art. Indeed, the presence of Title I funding for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch means these schools often have a whole lot of federal funding.

But they also have a lot of problems. In particular, poor students come to school with lower reading and math abilities than more affluent students. Because schools are evaluated based on reading and mathematics performance, well, where do schools place their resources?

Granted, the arts in public schools have never been that strong but, according to the article, one thing in particular makes arts teaching really difficult:

[In 2002] The federal government unveiled No Child Left Behind, standards-based educational reform that ushered in a culture of “high stakes testing.” As a result, teachers spent more time on subjects like English and math, and less on the arts. As New York started feeling the effects of the recession, it had to tighten its budget. “Because we test literacy and we test math levels, subjects like foreign language and PE and yes, arts, are among the first to be cut,” [the Center for Arts Education’s executive director, Eric] Pryor said.

No one really says that the arts, or after-school actives, or sports, or music aren’t important. Indeed, the interest groups that represent these guys could find you a whole bunch of studies that indicate that these things are very important, but if you test for something and evaluate based that and have a limited amount of funds to distribute, you’re only going to focus on some things.

This is a report exclusive to New York City, but it reflects concerns of educators and parents from around the country. If it’s tested, schools prioritize it; if you don’t test it, it’s just not that important. It really can’t be. That would be an irrational decision on the part of school administrators.

The article notes that New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has introduced a financial plan to provide $20 million for more arts education. How far will that go? It will apparently cost half of that, $10 million, just to put an arts teacher in every New York middle and high school that doesn’t have one now.

And what’ s going to keep that program strong? If you don’t test it, the low priority for arts is just going to continue. We’ll no doubt see this problem continue.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer