AP Studio-Art Classes Grow in Popularity

(Photo by Flickr user khawkins04)

By Daniel Grant

High-school students know that Advanced Placement courses are the hardest classes for the smartest students, awarding college credit to those who pass, and signaling to college admissions committees a student’s ambition and commitment. But although they have been offered for several decades, AP studio-art classes have been relative sleepers. That’s changing, though, as interest in them grows nationwide.

AP studio-art classes include drawing, two- and three-dimensional art, and design. They’re not available at every high school, even those that offer AP courses in more-academic disciplines, but demand for them is on the rise.

Like the academic AP courses, Advanced Placement studio art classes are intended to offer a more intense collegiate learning experience.

“It’s good training for art school,” said Mark Kirsch, the AP studio-art teacher at Southwestern High School, in Jamestown, N.Y. He added, however, that few students from his program have actually gone into bachelor-of-fine-arts programs in college. The value of the course goes beyond simple preparation for art school or even learning art at a higher level, he said. Because the work load is too large to be completed during class time, students need to develop “a strong work ethic to get things done on their own time, and they need to budget their time.”

The AP studio-art program was first introduced in the 1979-80 academic year, and the first exams were given in May 1980. Back then, “maybe a few hundred” students took it, according to a spokeswoman for the College Board. The numbers clearly have increased since then. The College Board’s Web site lists scores and the number of test takers starting in 1997. In 1997, 10,012 students took the AP studio-art test; by 2005, that number had risen to 23,588, 26,655 in 2006, 28,343 in 2007, 31,015 in 2008 and 37,632 in 2010.

For the schools offering it, AP studio art acts to push teachers and administrators to upgrade their art programs, their expectations of students, and the level of instruction.

“It keeps us on our toes, trying every year to raise the bar for our kids,” said Dolores Tompkins, art-department coordinator at Booker T. Washington High School, in Dallas, a magnet school for students interested in the visual and performing arts. “We know that our kids are competing with other kids around the country.”

Grading and Granting Credits

That competition comes in the final grading, when 32,051 portfolios (in 2008), consisting of two-dozen completed artworks, are submitted from around the country to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., for scoring. The curriculum and basis for scoring final tests for all Advanced Placement courses have been created by the New York City-based College Board, a nonprofit membership association that is best known for developing the SAT college-admission exam.

As of 2008, 15,969 high schools offer at least one advanced placement course; within this group, an estimated 3,919 high schools offer AP studio art. The College Board’s standards for judging portfolios are based on three general areas of criteria—breadth (showing one’s range in terms of different media), quality, and concentration (an area of study that is pursued in depth). Slides in each category are sent to the College Board for review, with up to seven judges—called “readers”—looking at each portfolio. In all, 100 readers evaluated all the portfolios submitted, awarding numerical scores of 1 to 5 for each. A score of 3 and up is considered passing, while 1 and 2 indicate a need for considerable improvement. (Students receive regular A-through-F grades for Advanced Placement courses from their high-school teachers, which are independent of the Educational Testing Service scoring. The same student, for instance, may earn an A and a 2.)

Individual colleges, however, are the final judge of what scores they will consider acceptable for full credit, and the range is wide. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago awards three credit hours for incoming students who have earned a score of 3 or 4 and six credit hours for a score of 5. The Massachusetts College of Art and Design counts as an elective studio credit an AP studio-art score of 4 or 5, and Northwestern University allows students in its bachelor-of-fine-arts program who have received a score of 5 to be exempted from taking one elective. Neither Cooper Union nor the San Francisco Art Institute offer any credit for AP studio art.

The Rhode Island School of Design accepts AP credits for its liberal-arts courses but not for studio art. Receiving a passing grade in an AP academic course generally permits first-year college students to bypass an introductory freshman-year class, but art schools “prefer students go through the entire first-year program and not exempt students from foundation courses,” said William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. “They see AP classes as very general and not reflecting a specific course.” AP credit usually means being allowed to skip an elective in a junior or senior year, but “few students are really going to do that, because they came to these schools to take those classes.”

A Dearth of Early Training

While there are no specific curricular prerequisites for students taking AP studio art, it is recommended that students have prior training in art. Such recommendations are not always followed, for reasons having to do with individual school-district priorities.

“Many students haven’t had art classes in elementary and middle schools,” said DeWayne Mason, the AP studio-art teacher at Patriot High School, in Riverside, Calif. “We don’t get highly talented kids here.” As a result, anyone at that school interested in trying AP studio art can take the course, “and we encourage kids to take it.” Perhaps because students often have more desire than training, none of the eight students in the class of 2008 received a score of 3 or above.

The likelihood of receiving a passing score is also diminished among students who are taking several other Advanced Placement courses, each of which involves work outside of the classroom. “One hundred percent of our students take AP courses. We are an AP school,” said Christine Miller, the AP studio-art teacher at Dallas’s magnet high school for academically talented and gifted students. “This school is incredibly intense,” she said. “Art is taken seriously, but students don’t have time in their schedules to take Art I, Art II, Drawing I. They just dive into the deep end.”

AP courses improve one’s class ranking, so college-minded students may face the choice of either doing AP studio art or no art class. There is, Miller said, “pressure on students to do AP art” if they do any art at all. In the three years in which AP studio art has been offered at the school, however, no student has received a score of 3 or above. “We can’t compete with kids who’ve had years and years of training,” said Miller.

However, two-thirds of the 30,000-plus submitted AP studio-art portfolios do pass with scores of 3 or higher, which reflects the degree to which high-school art teachers around the country are able to raise most of their students to a high level of achievement, according to Wendy Free, the College Board’s associate director of curriculum and content development for the arts. “A lot of what we do is help the teachers find ways to teach better,” which includes summer courses for instructors, an online AP discussion group, detailed course descriptions, and examples on its Web site of successful portfolios. The two-thirds passing in studio art also is higher than the overall percentage of students receiving a score of 3 or better in all AP subjects. In 2008, 2,728,939 high school students took AP exams, and only 57.7 percent received a 3 or above.

Students who have taken AP studio art and then gone on to Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees on the college level generally commend the high school course for helping them hone their skills.

“If I hadn’t been challenged as much in the AP class, I might have found the college courses much more daunting,” said Sallie Doss, a senior B.F.A. candidate at Wake Forest University who took AP studio art at Bryan High School, in Bryan, Tex. She noted that, while the high-school class wasn’t “comparable to a college class in terms of how much they really teach you,” it was more individualized, because there were only five other students in it.

Another veteran of high school AP studio art, Stäcy Smith, who attended Pearland High School, in Texas, and is completing a B.F.A. program at the University of Houston, noted that her high-school class compared favorably to the introductory “foundation” courses taught at the college level. “Foundation can be a crap shoot, because you generally get grad students as your instructors,” she said, adding that regular faculty largely taught the electives. “The college foundation courses did seem redundant to me.” Smith noted that, in high school, she took the two offered art classes, the regular one and the AP, finding that between the two “there was a difference in intensity and in the quality of the work and conversation.” The main drawback was that Pearland High School “didn’t have the facilities for painting and sculpture,” resulting in the AP class focusing almost exclusively on drawing and design. By the time she entered college, “I was very green in painting.”

Challenges in Judging Work

AP studio art presents a balancing act for the College Board, which administers advanced placement programs in 37 academic areas, such as English, history, languages, mathematics, and science. The final three-hour tests in these subjects largely consist of standardized multiple-choice and essay questions, based on a grasp of facts and accepted concepts. A sample essay topic in the AP U.S.-history exam (found in the College Board’s online information packet for students, parents, and teachers) asks: “Analyze the responses of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to the problems of the Great Depression. How effective were these responses? How did they change the role of the federal government?” A sample question in the AP art-history exam shows two images and reads: “On the left is Pablo Picasso’s sculpture of sheet metal and wire, ‘Guitar’ (1912), and on the right his ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ (1911-12). Discuss how both works break with established traditions. (10 minutes)”

With AP studio art, however, students leave the world of true/false and opinion supported (or not) by facts. They enter a world of subjective opinion within seemingly objective grounds for evaluation, and the selected readers—some of whom are AP studio-art high-school teachers while others are college art faculty—must find some agreed-upon mix of technical accomplishment and artistic license.

“Developing a rubric by which we would rate students in a consistent manner is probably the most difficult part of our job,” said Ray Allen, provost at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who served as a reader during the 1990s. “On the one hand, you’d have people saying ‘Skills be damned, I’m only interested in ideas and the delivery of them,’ and on the other side, someone would say ‘Skill mastery is all I’m looking for.’” The College Board has its own criteria for readers to use, of which these are a sample (from positive to negative): “An evocative theme is carried out”; “The drawing technique and skills are generally good”; “The work may appear to constitute a good start, but it does not show sufficient investigation”; “The idea is incoherent or not focused.”

There is no standardized test that won’t appear “formulaic, too cookie cutter,” said Barrett, the director of the art-colleges group. And an online presentation of past successful portfolios may lead art instructors to teach students what AP readers appear to like. “Teaching to the test freaks our group out,” he said.

Still, that might be a good problem to have. The growing number of AP studio-art courses reflects the degree to which art is being taken more seriously, and it offers an opportunity for high-school students to be challenged in an area that has long received little attention.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006) and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (second edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

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