RTRL.70: Demographic Characteristics and Music Achievement of Eighth-Grade Students (Elpus, 2022)


Elpus, K. (2022). Middle school music uptake and achievement: Evidence from the 2016 Arts National Assessment of Educational Progress. Journal of Research in Music Education, 70(3), 248-270.

What did the researcher want to know?

What are the characteristics of 8th grade students enrolled in school music classes?

What did the researcher do?

Elpus accessed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “a series of standardized assessments intended to chart American students’ educational progress” (p. 249). Specifically, Elpus analyzed data from the 2016 Music NAEP, which encompassed a nationally representative sample of 4,340 students. Data included demographic information (e.g., race, sex), indicators of socioeconomic status (e.g., parents’ education, books in the home), and questions on music in and out of school.

Elpus calculated the proportion of 8th grade students enrolled in school music classes; how music enrollment varied across school-level characteristics; and demographic characteristics of students enrolled in music classes. He also used multiple regression to compare NAEP music scores among students in various kinds of music classes and to examine how various characteristics as associated with NAEP Music Achievement scores.

What did the researcher find?

Overall, 64% of 8th graders nationwide were enrolled in a school music class in 2016. Of these, just over half were enrolled in band, orchestra, or choir, and just under half were enrolled in a general music class. 

Male students were overrepresented in general music classes and underrepresented in choir classes. White students were overrepresented in band and choir classes and underrepresented in general music classes, while Black students were underrepresented in band and orchestra and overrepresented in general music classes. Students enrolled in ensembles tended to have higher socioeconomic status than those not enrolled in music classes.

Specifically looking at general music classes, students were more likely to be male, eligible for free/reduced lunch, and/or receiving special accommodations under an IEP or Section 504 plan and were less likely to be White than were nonmusic or ensemble students, suggesting “students with these characteristics in middle school may be either systematically prevented or actively discouraged from enrolling in music ensembles and channeled into general music courses to fill needed music or arts requirements (p. 256). In terms of school-level characteristics, music enrollment was highest at private and public middle schools and lowest in charter middle schools and lower in the West than other regions of the U.S.

When comparing Music NAEP scores in relation to music class participation, “the kind of music course in which a student was enrolled was significantly associated with Music NAEP scores, with ensemble students significantly outscoring both their non music and general music-only peers” (p. 260). In addition, “there was no significant difference between nonmusical and general music-only students” (p. 260). Elpus also found significant differences by gender (female students scored higher), race (Asian and White students scored higher), socioeconomic status (students eligible for free/reduced lunch and having fewer books in the home scored lower), special education and English language learner status (both scored lower), and attendance record (students who missed fewer days of school scored higher).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Several previous studies have shown distinct differences between the populations of students who choose to participate in high school music and those who do not (Elpus & Abril, 2019, Kinney, 2019), but Elpus’s results show that this begins earlier than high school. According to Elpus, “Indeed, it is quite likely that these disparities first emerge much nearer to the point in schooling when ensemble music making first becomes elective” (p. 264). Music teachers should be aware of what populations may be less likely to enroll in school music classes once it becomes optional, examine possible reasons why certain populations may elect not to participate, and work to make their classes a more inclusive and welcoming space for those populations. 

We also need to examine whether over- and/or under-representation of certain populations in ensemble versus general music settings may be an issue of access. Elpus asks, “Are general music courses more readily available than ensembles at middle schools serving greater proportions of students of color and students living in poverty? Or, perhaps if neither access nor adult channeling underlies this finding, is there something about the content and form of general music classes that make these courses more attractive to Black and Hispanic (Latinx) students” (p. 265)?