The National Standards for Arts Education: A Brief History




The push for national standards began in January 1992, when the National Council on Education Standards and Testing (NCEST) called for a system of voluntary national standards and assessments in the “core” subjects of math, English, science, history, and geography, “with other subjects to follow.” The arts were the first of the “other subjects” to receive federal funding. With the passage of Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the national education reform legislation that includes development of world-class standards, the arts have been recognized for the first time as a fundamental academic subject.

From June 1992 – June 1994, the Music Educators National Conference (which is now the National Association for Music Education), on behalf of the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, received a total of $1 million from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop voluntary national standards for each of the four arts disciplines–music, visual arts, theatre, and dance–in grades K-12. These voluntary standards describe the knowledge, skills, and understanding that all students should acquire in the arts, providing a basis for developing curricula.

Project Organization

The project was overseen by the National Committee for Standards in the Arts, which included representatives from education, business, government, and the arts. A. Graham Down, president of the Council for Basic Education, chaired the National Committee.

Task forces from each of the four organizations in the Consortium drafted the standards, which describe the knowledge, skills, and understandings that all students should acquire in the arts for a well-rounded education. The standards reflect a vision for the future and not the status quo. For each discipline, the standards are pedagogically coherent and consider the special needs of children from diverse cultural backgrounds, children with disabilities, and technology’s role in teaching the arts. Representatives from the arts standards project met regularly with standards project directors from history, geography, civics and government, science, foreign language, and English to discuss common concerns and ideas for achieving consistency among the documents.

Document Format

The standards are organized into three sections by grade level: K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Within each section are content standards that specify what the student should know and be able to do in the arts disciplines. Following each Content Standard are Achievement Standards, which specify the understanding and levels of achievement that students are expected to attain in the competencies for each of the arts at the completion of grades 4, 8, and 12. This format, which categorizes all four disciplines within each section, highlights commonalities and suggests possibilities for integrating the arts.

Since not all students elect to study one or more of the arts disciplines in grades 9-12, “Proficient” and “Advanced” levels of achievement have been identified at this level. In general, the “Advanced” level of achievement is more likely to be attained by students who have elected specialized courses in the particular arts discipline than by students who have not. All students, however, are expected to achieve at the “Proficient” level in at least one art.

Consensus Building

The effort to develop the standards was broad-based and involved respected individuals from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in arts education, including nationally recognized educators and artists. In the fall of 1993, drafts of the standards were circulated to a wide audience, including selected members of the Consortium organizations, arts consultants, all participating groups, and the NAEP assessment group. Subsequently, the standards were revised in accordance with the responses received from the field. This repeated process of consensus building has ensured that the standards reflect the best collective thinking of artists and educators, resulting in a document that is nationally accepted as an authoritative statement on which national and state assessment programs can be based.

On January 31, 1994, after two years of deliberations over their development, the arts standards were approved by the National Committee. On March 11, 1994, the final document, the National Standards for Arts Education, was presented to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley at a press conference in Washington, D.C. at the National Press Club.


For many schools, achieving the standards will mean devoting more time and support to the arts. The first step has been agreeing on standards that identify the most important skills and knowledge that should be taught. The next step is designing and implementing curricula to achieve those standards, including making necessary changes in teacher education. The determination and design of the curriculum and the instructional activities necessary to achieve the standards is the responsibility of the states and the local school districts.

Under a grant to MENC from the Catherine T. and John D. MacArthur Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, a twelve-member task force was appointed to develop issues and strategy papers that address the implementation of the arts standards among various constituencies. These papers have been published in a book entitled Perspectives on Implementation.

For additional information on the arts standards, write to:
National Arts Standards
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME)
1806 Robert Fulton Drive, Reston, VA 20191

American Alliance for Theatre and Education
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME)
National Art Education Association
National Dance Association

Learning Network