Arts-Focused Field Trips May Boost Standardized Test Scores, New Research Finds

Eli Hill
Mar 18, 2018 12:00PM

Children learn from computers at the ArtWorks center in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images.

Most people would probably say enjoying a colorful Matisse painting at a museum is the polar opposite of filling in test bubbles using a grey 2H pencil. But new research backed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) suggests that frequent art-related field trips by students may actually be a catalyst for significantly higher standardized test scores in both English and math. The surprising connection runs counter to previous studies, which found engaging with the arts had little to no impact on academic performance in other subjects. The recent research, directed by University of Arkansas professor Jay P. Greene, followed two groups of randomly selected 4th and 5th graders. Students in the first group took three field trips to the Woodruff Art Center in Atlanta, while those in the other group only attended one.

Greene’s research team then compared students’ standardized test scores from before the trips with those taken afterwards, and found unexpected improvement. The class that attended three art-related field trips had scores that rose more than anticipated (12.4 percent increase of a standard deviation, Greene said) on their combined English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests. The bump that followed the field trips was equal to about 87 additional days of classroom learning. But Greene cautions against drawing a straightforward connection between museum visits and standardized test scores.

“It’s implausible to me that students would learn that much math and reading content in two extra visits to a museum,” Greene said. “My best guess is that it’s affecting motivation, not affecting content knowledge.” In other words, student test scores were likely bolstered by an increase in a general academic engagement that came from attending museums, not by what they learned at the museum.

The students who went on additional trips were also more responsive to a questionnaire administered by the researchers that focused on topics such as “social perspective taking” and “art consumption.” The survey included questions like “How often do you try to understand the point of view of other people?” and “If your friends or family wanted to go to an art museum, how interested would you be in going?” After the field trips, Greene noticed more engagement in student responses, and his previous research shows that attending even a single field trip can boost the quality of a student’s survey answer.

“School isn’t just about information provision, it’s also about motivation to acquire information,” said Greene. So, while students may not be learning long division at an art museum, these trips are affecting their social skills, critical thinking abilities, and motivation to acquire knowledge in school.

Though Greene’s research into this subject is still in its early stages, his findings have surprised and excited other researchers in the field, including Lois Hetland, a professor of art education at MassArt. In 2000, Hetland and Boston College professor Ellen Winner performed a systematic literature review focused on whether arts-related learning translated into knowledge in other disciplines. Ultimately, they found it did not, with studying the arts having a slim or nonexistent impact on a student’s success in other academic fields, and vice-versa. So learning math won’t propel students to success in English, and studying English won’t impact their art education.

But, despite these results, Hetland has remained an advocate for integrating the arts into basic education. She questions why the arts are only considered valuable if they’re increasing test scores in other subjects.

“I really hope that the field can begin to look at the arts for what the arts are in themselves,” Hetland said. “The way we make meaning through the arts is a wonderful way of knowing that it’s just as important as science, history, and literature. It’s not more important, it’s as important.”

Just a few skills fostered by the arts are the abilities to observe closely, approach concepts playfully, accept error, sustain our attention, work through blocks, see from multiple perspectives, and actualize our ideas, Hetland said.

“Thinking with complex ideas in nuanced ways and understanding that there are more kinds of answers than right or wrong––that there are layered ambiguities in meaning. Artwork does that,” she noted.

Greene’s research is part of a broader NEA initiative aimed at collecting data to show how the arts impact health, creativity, and business. The agency also just released data showing that the arts and cultural sector contributed over $763.6 billion to the American economy in 2015. Still, the NEA is once again facing funding cuts under the Trump administration’s proposed budget. Along with the economic data, Greene’s early results bolster arts advocates arguing for the powerful impact culture has on students and society at large.

Currently, Greene is continuing his research and has introduced a second wave of participants from four of the original schools, as well as from six new schools. These students will attend the same 3:1 ratio of art-related field trips as the previous group. In addition, Greene’s team plans to followup with those students from the earlier group to monitor the long-term effects art-related field trips might have. Whether or not their scores will continue to improve with more field trips remains to be seen, but there is good reason to believe that these students will continue to welcome their time at an art museum outside the classroom.

“Arts-focused field trips make school suck a little bit less,” as Greene puts it.

Eli Hill