IN the debate over improving the education of American students something of great importance is frequently overlooked - the value of arts education. Three reports published last year on the state of American education were in close agreement as to a need to accord the arts an important - indeed, a basic - place in school curricula.
Both the College Board and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching specifically include the arts among the subjects they consider essential for high school graduation. The College Board lists the arts as one of the basic academic subjects. And the National Commission on Excellence in Education, though omitting the arts from its ''Five New Basics,'' declares that a ''high level of shared education in these basics, together with work in the fine and performing arts and foreign languages, constitutes the mind and spirit of our culture.''
The National Endowment for the Arts is persuaded that American youth cannot adequately apprehend ''the mind and spirit of our culture'' unless they are provided with systematic teaching in the arts. Therefore, the endowment advocates kindergarten-through-high-school arts education.
Arts education can take the form of ''doing'' art (learning to sing, to play musical instruments, to paint, to dance, to perform drama, or write poetry); being exposed to art (by attending performances or exhibitions of art, or by working with resident artists); and learning about art for its own sake or in relation to civilization (perhaps in conjunction with other academic subjects).
Since education is properly a local concern, the endowment is interested only in helping to identify and disseminate the kinds of arts-learning that works best for young people and at which ages.
Arts education is most effective when a number of complementary approaches are combined - often through collaborations between schools, resident artists, arts institutions, and other local groups with expertise in the arts.
As school systems around the country debate the future of elementary and secondary education (there are currently 45 state task forces working in this area), it is essential that arts education be considered as a part of the debate.
In terms of goals, the Endowment for the Arts associates itself with the College Board's summary of the levels of competence which college-bound students should achieve in the arts:
* The ability to understand and appreciate the unique qualities of each of the arts.
* The ability to appreciate how people of various cultures have used the arts to express themselves.
* The ability to understand and appreciate different artistic styles and works from representative historical periods and cultures.
* Some knowledge of the social and intellectual influences affecting artistic form.
* The ability to use the skills, media, tools, and processes required to express oneself in the arts.
In addition the endowment is:
l. Scheduling five regional seminars on arts education during 1984 which will assist us in identifying the best ways to build effective arts education programs at the state and local level. The seminars will be co-sponsored by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
2. Cooperating with a major private foundation to develop a pilot series of arts television programs for children.
3. Assisting in efforts to strengthen teacher education.
4. Exploring the possibility of encouraging more outreach by arts institutions.
5. Continuing its support for artist residencies in schools and other institutions.
As the College Board notes, the ''arts challenge and extend human experience. They provide means of expression that go beyond ordinary speaking and writing. They can express intimate thoughts and feelings. They are a unique record of diverse cultures and how these cultures have developed over time. . . . Works of art often involve subtle meanings and complex systems of expression. Fully appreciating such works requires the careful reasoning and sustained study that leads to informed insight.''