SAT Scores of Students Who Study the Arts: What We Can and Cannot Conclude about the Association

Vaughn, K., & Winner, E. (2000). SAT Scores of Students Who Study the Arts: What We Can and Cannot Conclude about the Association. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 77-89.


This study examines the claim that students who study the arts in high school have higher SAT scores than those who do not study the arts. The relationship between arts courses and SAT scores has been documented by the College Board since 1987 and is based on a very large sample – all students taking the SAT who voluntarily responded to the Student Descriptive Questionnaire (SDQ) as part of the registration process. The actual mean scores of students responding to a given question is used in this analysis. The researchers use the results of the College Board data analysis to answer a variety of comparative questions.

Key Findings:

The first analysis shows a correlation between students who take any kind of art course in high school and higher SAT scores (both verbal and math) than students who take no art course at all. Moreover, those who take four years of arts courses have higher scores than those who take less than four years’ worth.

The second analysis compared verbal scores across art forms. This analysis showed that the verbal and math SAT scores of students taking any form of art, irrespective of number of years, are significantly higher than for students who take no art. Acting/play production achieved the greatest effect in SAT score, while dance achieved the smallest effect. Students who took no art at all obtained the lowest scores in both verbal and math.

The final analysis compared verbal and math scores to determine which was most associated with studying the arts. A stronger effect size was found between verbal score and study of an art form for each of the art forms included in the analysis.

Significance of the Findings:

Students who study the arts are consistently higher academic achievers than students who do not study the arts. Though a causal inference cannot be made based on the current analysis, this finding is nevertheless striking.


The researchers used twelve years of College Board SAT data and performed statistical analysis to answer the following comparative questions: What is the relationship between SAT scores and each added year of arts study? Does it matter which art form? Which test is more strongly associated with studying the arts – the verbal or the math SAT? Data from the question about how many high school art, music, drama and/or dance classes were taken or plan to be taken were correlated with the student’s verbal and mathematics scores.

Limitations of the Research:

We cannot conclude from these findings that taking arts courses will result in higher SAT scores because the data are purely correlational and allow no causal inference. The link between SAT scores and arts courses has many possible explanations besides the possibility that exposure to the arts by itself leads to the kind of cognitive growth that would be reflected in higher SAT scores.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research might examine possible alternate explanations for the current findings. Are students who choose to study the arts higher achievers to begin with? Are high-achieving students from families that value both academic achievements and the arts? Do high achieving students elect to take art courses to improve their chances at admission to a selective college? And is it possible that students who study the arts attend schools that are strong in both arts and academics? In addition, it would be useful to compare student’s learning styles, art forms they study, and SAT scores, as the arts offer multimodal learning that may have greater transfer in some students than in others.