Task force ponders cutting arts classes Low test scores prod curriculum review of academic priorities

April 24, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A school system task force is considering slashing music and arts programs in favor of reading and academics geared more toward state assessment tests in a revamping of the middle school curriculum.

The group of parents and educators, set to vote next month on recommendations, is eyeing dropping music classes for students who aren't studying an instrument or voice, allowing chorus to be a one-semester class, and adding a reading course that would take the place of an elective. There is no reading course in the current middle school curriculum.

Flat eighth-grade test scores -- some below the state average -- in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) are driving the curriculum review, school officials have said. In reading, for example, only 25.4 percent of Anne Arundel eighth-graders achieved the satisfactory level and less than 1 percent excelled. The 1995 state average for reading was 27.6 percent at satisfactory and 1.5 percent at excellent levels.

"We think a more proficient reader could improve his scores not only in reading but across the test," said Dennis Younger, the school system's director of curriculum. "A student who is experiencing difficulty in reading will face challenges across the curriculum."

Students who need help in reading would get the new reading class instead of one of their two electives.

Instead of allowing students to choose from among arts, home economics and technology education three times a year, the proposal being circulated restricts technology education to sixth grade, home economics to seventh and art to eighth grade.

The task force is circulating many of its ideas within school communities for comment. The school board will get its first look at the recommendations in June.

Arts advocates are furious, arguing that a robust fine arts program is critical to the development of middle school students. Some met this week in Severna Park, and another meeting for music advocates tentatively is scheduled for May 13.

Mary Ann Mears, president of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Consortium, said it was "antediluvian" to see the arts being eroded at a time when studies are starting to link them with higher academic achievement.

"For children this age, music is such a large part of their lives. To limit these offerings just to performing ensembles seems to me to be very unfair," said Deborah Derrickson, a music resource teacher and task force member.

"Just because you are not a performer doesn't mean you don't have the right to an arts-based education," added Robert Stojakovich, band director and music teacher at Bates Middle School.

Vocal teachers say making chorus a one-semester course would wreak havoc on the continuity required for choral performances, because much of the music in the spring choral festival is taught in fall.

The idea of dropping the general music elective, an introduction to piano and guitar combined with music understanding and appreciation, comes just as the course is being revised. That proposal, nearly a year in the making, is due out within a few weeks.

The course teaches students the skill of decoding by teaching them to read music, said R. Bruce Horner, music coordinator for the school system. It also teaches the importance of teamwork and practice, and introduces students to different types of music, he said.

However, many students in it are there by default and not learning much, leading to discipline problems and disinterest, teachers and administrators admit.

Parents are split over the proposal to cut arts programs, some favoring certain aspects of change.

"I like the idea of the school system going back to basics," said Brenda Evans, whose children attend Northeast schools. "If I have a child reading below grade level, I would want my child to have a reading program because that is a skill he would need for life. And I would want that over the art or other elective."

Yet Beth Wegner, whose children attend Severna Park schools, said all children need outlets for creative expression, though she conceded 80 minutes of performance music is too much.

"Can you imagine a middle school kid playing a trumpet for 80 minutes?" she said. "Their lips won't last."

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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