Why Do Music Students Have Higher SAT Scores?

New research suggests the reason has more to do with the sort of student who decides to study music than any brain-boosting benefits of lessons.
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(PHOTO: HANNU J.A. AALTONEN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: HANNU J.A. AALTONEN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The figures look so good, it’s no wonder that they’re trumpeted by the National Association for Music Education. “On the 2012 SAT,” the organization notes, “students who participated in music scored an average of 31 points above average in reading, 23 points above average in math, and 31 points above average in writing.”

A strong argument in favor of music education? Maybe not so much. As we point out regularly here, correlation and causation are very different things. Newly published research concludes those differences reflect the types of kids who decide to participate in music, rather than anything that occurs in the practice room.

Music students tend to be those “who are already more likely to outperform others on educational measures,” Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland reports in the Journal of Research in Music Education.

“On the 2012 SAT, students who participated in music scored an average of 31 points above average in reading.”

Once you remove factors such as socioeconomic status and prior academic achievement from the equation, he writes, “music students in the U.S. high school class of 2004 did not outperform non-music students on college entrance exams, or on standardized math tests.”

Elpus’ analysis is based on data from a longitudinal study of 13,530 American students who were high school sophomores in 2002. Transcript data from that group (the class of 2004) showed that 36 percent earned at least one course credit in music.

After controlling for various demographic factors, academic success in previous grades, and expressed attitudes toward school and learning (including whether they expected to earn a college degree), he found no significant difference between music students and others on either college entrance exams or standardized math tests.

Elpus concedes that his decision to consider students who have completed one music course as “music students” may not “separate ‘real’ music students from dilettantes, or those participating in a required music course.”

However, he also crunched the numbers for kids who took music courses throughout their four years in high school. He found that “even those students with sustained music enrollment did not outscore their non-music peers on standardized tests, once fixed effects, demographics, and prior academic achievement are taken into account.”

None of this contradicts the evidence that music lessons have a positive impact on the brains of young children. (For examples, see here, here, and here.) But it does suggest that arts-education advocates, placed in the awkward position of having to justify such courses on “practical” grounds, may be overstating their case when it comes to high schoolers.

“It may be time to question seriously, or even retire," Elpus concludes, "the advocacy argument that implies music students are more academically successful on standardized tests than their non-music peers because of their enrollment in music."

“A more candid appraisal of the current body of research literature might suggest that music is somehow attractive [to those] who are already more likely to perform well academically, and as such, may serve as an important artistic outlet with positive developmental benefits for those students who choose to study it.”

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