Art Portfolio as A.P. Test
The New York Times
By Daniel Grant
October 31, 2014
Here is an unhappy thought: “Monet wouldn’t have done well in A.P. studio art. I’m sure of that.” The reason, continued Lauren Sleat, who teaches the course at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, is that there isn’t much breadth to his work. That is, he did the same thing again and again.
But he would have done well in terms of concentration, what the College Board describes as “the thoughtful investigation of a specific visual idea … through a number of conceptually related works.” Concentration and breadth are two of three categories in which students’ art portfolios are scored. One might expect Monet to score high in the third, quality, but the fact is, it took years for his work to be widely appreciated.
Now, Picasso is different. “Picasso would have scored very high,” Ms. Sleat said, because he could do traditional figurative work, modernist still life and abstract art in a variety of media — the whole package. Or, in College Board speak, Picasso would have earned a 5 on his portfolio.
It’s strange to picture famous artists struggling to get a good score in a high school art class. But unlike United States history or Latin or calculus, there are no right or wrong answers in Advanced Placement studio art. Students are tested not by their mastery of the material but by their skill, a far more subjective area of evaluation. “Readers” must make judgments about competence and inventiveness as they work their way through some 48,000 portfolios of student artwork. That’s more than double the number submitted a decade earlier.
Advanced Placement, run by the College Board, offers high school students college-level work, and the possibility of college credit for those who pass the exam in May. Studio art is one of the fastest growing of the A.P. disciplines, and has become a transcript staple in the applicant pool for Bachelor of Fine Arts programs at independent art colleges. “Maybe 25 to 30 percent of our applicants have done A.P. in high school,” said Linda Schwab, director of admissions at Watkins College of Art, Design and Film in Nashville.
But the growth does not necessarily signal artistic aspirations. According to a 2007 survey by the College Board, only about 13 percent of the students major in art. So why take A.P. studio? To try to impress a college admissions office, of course, or perhaps to make a rest stop along the academic autobahn or, maybe, art really is a labor of love.
WHAT IS STUDIO ART, ANYWAY?
The art program comes in three yearlong options: drawing (which also encompasses painting and printmaking), 2-D design (graphic and digital design; photography) and 3-D design (sculpture and crafts).
Much is required. For drawing and 2-D portfolios, for example, students must submit 24 works: 12 in a breadth section, showing a variety of subjects, visual concepts and techniques, and 12 in the concentration section, presenting a unified body of work (all portraits, say) and ideas. Five works are highlighted as indications of quality, revealing understanding of concept, composition and execution and overall accomplishment.
As much as high school teachers will seek to give their students the rigor of a college class, time is a factor in A.P. courses that is difficult to get around. Studio art classes in college generally last two or three hours, sometimes longer, while high school art remains a 50-minute affair, with the last 10 minutes devoted to cleanup.
“You don’t get a lot done in class,” said Deborah Callahan, chairwoman of the art department of Longmeadow High School, in Massachusetts. “So twice a month, we keep the art room open from 2:15 to 8 p.m.” Several other A.P. art teachers relayed the same thing. Class time is for conversation — critiquing work, learning terms and concepts, watching presentations on contemporary art. The art, the portfolio, is made at home or after school.
Classroom grades reflect an instructor’s sense of a student’s effort and improvement, which the teacher sees on a daily basis. In contrast, the A.P. score — on a 1 to 6 scale for sections, recalibrated to 1 to 5 for the portfolio — is based on the end-of-year submissions to the College Board.
The Advanced Placement program in general has been criticized for its focus on a single test — likewise, studio art’s portfolio. “A.P. studio reveals some of the problems with how much we test,” said Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and author of “Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.”
“Slapping a score on a work of art, based on checking off this and this and this, is crazy,” he said. “Meeting all the requirements is not what makes a work of art move us.”
HOW A PORTFOLIO IS SCORED
The process of evaluating and scoring all those portfolios is monumental, requiring 120-plus readers — an even mix of high school and college art instructors who are divided into small groups that must reach a consensus. They follow a rubric that has been worked out over the years outlining principles of design and visual elements. In effect, is the artwork interesting and what are the elements that make it so? If not, what’s lacking? The rubric is intended to result in an objective assessment of artwork.
A.P. teachers need to know how to teach to that rubric. They need to speak the language — for instance, “composition” and “mark-making,” the lines, patterns and textures used to create an artwork. Greg W. Shelnutt, chairman of the art department at Clemson University in South Carolina and an A.P. reader for five years, explains what he looks at in judging mark-making: “how line is utilized, the weight of the line, where it is thin, where it’s thick, the movement of the line, the variety of marks.”
The teachers also need to know the difference between an artwork that earns a 4 or 5 or 6.
The continuing studies division of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago offers weeklong training workshops for A.P. teachers. Maybe half of them have art degrees, according to Kaye Buchman, former associate director of the division. “We’ve had the occasional shop or phys ed teacher who are told to teach A.P. studio,” she acknowledged. “That’s the nature of school budget cuts.”
The Taft Educational Center in Watertown, Conn., also offers optional A.P. training. Instructors may take a class to the nearby Yale Art Gallery “to see what makes certain paintings good,” said the center’s director, Al Reiff. They will point out how one student’s work compares to another’s. Perhaps, he suggested, “the composition is more complex — it draws your eye all over the image, while that student’s image is more flat.”
Barbara Petter Putnam, who has a bachelor’s in art education and a master’s in fine arts, teaches at St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts, where she prepared for her A.P. studio art class by looking at portfolios on the College Board website. “That taught me a lot about what was considered bad and what was considered good,” said Ms. Putnam. “I gained information through my own eyes.” The approach has worked. “There is the occasional 4, but almost all of my students get a 5,” she said.
While few of her 5s go on to B.F.A. programs, Trevor Packer, senior vice president in charge of Advanced Placement, pointed to a College Board survey finding: Students who take A.P. studio art are more likely to take an art course or two in college.
Ms. Putnam mentioned another benefit. With students stuffing five and six A. P.s into their schedule, offering an A.P. art class is the principal way “to get kids to make room in their schedules for art.”
“Otherwise,” she said, “they probably wouldn’t do it.”
Alina Libowitz, a first-year student at the University of Delaware with plans to major in either international business or speech language pathology, took A. P.s in English, European history and environmental science and found this: “Art was less stressful than my other classes.” A.P. studio, she said, was “a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like work.”
Her classmate in studio art at Longmeadow High School, Madeline Maurer, took four A. P.s all told. She describes herself as competitive, and wanted the most challenging art course available. “I like to keep going up and up in levels.” Besides, she said, it was fun.
WHAT COLLEGES SAY
Art academies are receptive to the idea of A.P.-trained applicants. David Sigman, admissions director at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, said the courses “put students in line with what we are teaching here.” Elizabeth O’Brien, vice president of enrollment at the San Francisco Art Institute, said graduates who have taken A.P. art “tend to do a little better than others in their cohort.”
Traditional colleges don’t sniff at studio art, either. “We are very impressed with applicants who have taken that course,” said Mary French, associate director of admissions at Boston College.
Nat Smitobol, an admissions consultant for IvyWise and former assistant director of admissions at New York University, explains why that might be. He calls studio art “a soft A.P.,” adding: “But no one is penalized for taking it. It shows that a student is seriously interested in art.” (He names environmental science and human geography as soft A. P.s that are more apt to be viewed negatively. “Taking those sounds like you’re dodging A.P. chemistry or biology.”)
David Dickinson, an art teacher at Deerfield Academy, a preparatory school in Massachusetts, recommends that his students send their portfolios with their college applications even when not majoring in art. “A portfolio is a hook — it grabs their attention — in the same way that lacrosse is a hook at many colleges, or crew is a hook with the Ivies,” he said. “Seeing a portfolio thrills them.”
A.P. studio may help bolster an admissions résumé, but it can lack a benefit of many other A. P.s: Most colleges will not allow a student with a passing score (3, 4 or 5, depending on the institution) to skip a first-year core course, either because they have nothing comparable or, for art majors, they want all of them to take the same courses.
“It’s not just a skill set we’re teaching in foundation,” said Mr. Shelnutt about Clemson’s core courses. “They are getting inculcated into the culture of the program.” Instead, students may use any credit they receive for studio art toward an elective. But because most art majors want to take electives in their area of interest, it isn’t likely the credit will be used.
“A.P. courses are more a vehicle for college acceptance than credit,” confirmed Mr. Reiff, whose center trains instructors in all 35 A.P. disciplines. “They look good on your transcript.”
Then he added: “The question I keep asking is, does it make sense to bring that kind of mentality to the fine arts? Why not just offer more and better art classes in high school?”