Catterall, J.S. (1998). Involvement in the arts and success in secondary school. Americans for the Arts Monographs, 1(9), 1-10.


This study examines longitudinal data for 25,000 secondary school students to explore links between participation in the arts and academic achievement. The article is divided into three sections: (1) a description of student participation in various art-related endeavors; (2) a description of academic achievement and student attitudes for high-arts vs. low-arts groups in 8th and 10th grades; and (3) a deeper examination of the relationship between arts involvement and academic performance limited to participants in the lowest quartile for socio-economic status (SES). Overall, students in the high-arts group outperformed their low-arts counterparts on all measures of academic achievement, and a positive relationship was found between arts participation and academic achievement for students in the lowest quartile of SES.

Key Findings:

  • Overall, students in the high-arts group outperformed their low-arts counterparts on every measure of academic achievement. Students in the high-arts group also scored more favorably on attitude measures (persistence in school, attitudes about community service) than low-arts students.
  • When examining only the lowest quartile for SES, the positive relationship between arts involvement and academic achievement remained robust.
  • In addition, within the lowest SES quartile the differences in academic achievement for high-arts vs. low-arts students were greater in the 10th grade than the 8th grade.

Significance of the Findings:

In the words of the author, “A substantial case for the importance of the arts in the academic lives of middle and high schoolers is the primary implication of this research.” The study reinforces the importance of arts participation and makes a strong case that the arts themselves, rather than simply increased arts participation as a function of parental education and affluence, are strongly related to academic achievement and positive student behaviors. In addition, the magnified achievements for high-arts tenth graders points to the importance of sustained participation in the arts.


The data were gleaned from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). The author quantified arts participation by assigning points for arts-related activities, with additional points assigned for leadership or heavy involvement and one-third of a point assigned for museum attendance. The top quartile served as the high-arts group and the lowest quartile served as the low-arts group. The study drew comparisons between the high-arts and low-arts groups on variables such as English grades, standardized test scores, persistence in school, and community service performance. Next, to attempt to mitigate the bias of SES (since arts participation is closely linked with affluence and parent education level), the author further limited the sample to only students in the lowest quartile for SES, meaning that only the poorest 6,500 of the original 25,000 8th graders were examined to explore the effect of arts participation on economically disadvantaged students.

Limitations of the Research:

The study is correlational in nature and cannot lead to causal attributions. In addition, because the study was limited to pre-existing data, the author did not have the opportunity to probe deeper into the variables of interest to gather richer information about arts participation.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How does participation in the arts affect low-SES students across all grade levels and what is the impact of unequal access to the arts? How does participation in the arts affect academic achievement in other content areas such as science and social studies?