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Thousands of AP Studio Art Portfolios Assessed in Salt Lake City

Unlike most Advanced Placement offerings, the three studio-art programs dispense with the traditional pencil-and-paper exam in favor of student portfolios of artwork. Last month, nearly 50,000 such portfolios were examined and graded in Salt Lake City by a team of arts educators.

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I've been curious about this enterprise for some time and had an opportunity to speak recently with Herb Weaver, the "chief reader" for the AP studio-art programs and an art professor at Georgia Gwinnett College. It's worth noting here that while portfolio assessments are currently only used for AP studio art, that could change down the road. In particular, as I blogged recently, the College Board is considering the creation of its first-ever AP program in engineering, and the idea being bandied about is to have a portfolio assessment.

The three AP studio-art programs—Drawing, 2-D Design; and 3-D Design—have seen their participation rates rise rapidly in recent years. The most popular one, 2-D Design, has grown from about 10,000 participants from the graduating class of 2007 to 18,000 students five years later.

"This week is truly intense," Weaver said in a phone call from Salt Lake City last month, a day after the scoring of the student portfolios began. "The reading takes place for seven full days. This year, we have 48,000 portfolios, 2-D, 3-D, and drawing. We have 120 readers, 20 leaders, and me."

Roughly half the readers are college art instructors, and the other half are high school AP art teachers, he said.

The area of the Salt Lake City convention center where the artwork is evaluated is about the size of a football field, Weaver told me. (In all, more than 11,000 college faculty and AP high school teachers convened there and in several other cities.)

The studio-art effort also involved 170 assistants hired for the week to help move around the portfolios.

"The artwork comes in in about eight tractor-trailer trucks, and it's quite an operation to unload," Weaver said.

'Grading the Body of Work'

The portfolio-assessment process considers a number of factors.

"On our rubric, there are different things we're looking for," Weaver said. "First, their technical ability. Their risk-taking and experimentation. And, of course, the basis of all art, the principles and elements of design. Did they use effective line, shape, color, and space. ... Do we see the weaving of principles of design, rhythm, repetition, and balance?"

He added, "They're not really grading any one individual piece. When they see those five paintings or drawings, they're grading the body of work."

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A short item on the AP website also describes some of the key things the AP "readers" are looking for in portfolios.

"[W]e are looking for the following traits: emergence of technical competence, manipulation of original ideas, work that has purpose and direction, decisions executed with authority and confidence, evidence of experimentation and risk taking, a range of stylistic as well as technical concerns evident in the work, purposeful composition, and a sense of real effort," writes Lauren Sleat from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

There are three sections to the portfolio evaluations: quality, concentration, and breadth. You can find far more details about how the AP studio-art portfolios are scored here.

One aspect that may come as a surprise is the amount of time readers spend evaluating each portfolio. It's less than you might think. It's also a bit complicated to explain, because the same person does not evaluate all components of a student's portfolio. And each component receives more than one set of eyes. So bear with me as I explain.

On average, a given portfolio will receive, collectively, about 10 minutes of time from reviewers. The time each reader spends evaluating the five original works of art shipped in by truck is about 40 seconds in all.

"In many ways, it is enough time," Weaver said. "There is debate about this, but we feel with the training we have given them on what to look for, if we're walking down a row with five different [pieces of art], it seems short, but since we know what we're doing, it works."

But students are not just evaluated based on the five artworks physically shipped to Salt Lake City. They also are scored for what's called the "concentration" and "breadth" portions of the portfolio evaluation. For each of those sections, reviewers look at a dozen artworks sent digitally and viewed on computers. So in all, that comes to 29 pieces of art per student that are evaluated (though in some cases, it's slightly less, Weaver said).

Seven Readers

In the end, a given portfolio typically will get scores from at least seven different readers, Weaver explained in a follow-up email. Three people review the set of five original artworks shipped to the evaluation site. Two more people grade the concentration portion, and another two review the breadth portion.

Finally, as Weaver wrote, "if any portion of the exam is scored too far apart (like a 2 and a 5), then two other scorers look at the artwork and make a judgment. So, technically, a portfolio could be scored by 13 readers."

A majority of students earn a score of 3 or higher (on a 1-to-5 grading scale), generally considered a passing grade to earn college credit. Here are the latest figures, for the class of 2012:

• Drawing Portfolio (73 percent)
• 2-D Design Portfolio (74 percent)
• 3-D Design Portfolio (64 percent)

Only about 10 percent of students earn the coveted top score of 5. Last year, Weaver said he recalled that three students earned a perfect score for their 2-D Design portfolios.

"It's hard to quantify, but there are some things that come through in their artwork," he said. "You could say they're critical thinkers, willing to experiment on the edge of these principles of art. They have what we call verve, which I call visual nerve."

Photo Credit: The images for this blog post were provided by the College Board. © 2013 The College Board, AP Reading, Salt Lake City.

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