The Art of Testing Young Artists

Advanced Placement Studio Arts course poses challenges in evaluation and recognition. EDUCATION

AT the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), it may get you 10 undergraduate credits; at Harvard University you can skip a class; at Yale University ... nothing. Throughout the United States, high schools are offering Advanced Placement (AP) courses in 27 subjects, most being readily recognized in colleges and universities nationwide. But there is a 28th that is less known and the subject of more disagreement than its academic colleagues.

This course is AP Studio Arts, and since its inception in 1972 it has been the only course that is not evaluated on the basis of a nationally standardized written test.

Alice Simms-Gunzenhauser, the test development consultant for AP Studio Arts, says standardized evaluations of artwork can be made by ``laying 3,700 portfolios out over 20 rows of tables in the gymnasium at Ryder College.'' In lieu of a written examination, students participating put together an elaborate portfolio. A panel of judges, known as ``readers,'' evaluate the submissions. The student receives a grade of 1 through 5 (5 being the highest), the same as any other written AP test.

The idea behind AP is to encourage high-school students to perform on a collegiate level. The Advance Placement Program is sponsored by the College Board, a nonprofit organization of approximately 2,500 American colleges and universities begun 34 years ago. AP courses give students the opportunity to enter college with not only experience, but credits as well.

Despite this broad respect for the program as a whole, acceptance of this particular course is mixed.

Theodore Zernich, the director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that although the university gives credit for the other AP courses, it does not offer any for studio arts. To him, achievement in the visual arts is not ``a linear equation'' that can be measured in a single portfolio.

Expounding on Yale University's refusal to accept the program, Stacey Gemmill, the university's director of financial affairs and assistant to the dean, says, ``Progression in our [art] major is measured from the time you come through the doors at Yale.''

Harvard University, on the other hand, feels that a portfolio earning a 4 or 5 is a sufficient demonstration of ability to exempt the student from one of its entry-level courses. And UCLA awards course credits instead of class exemptions.

Institutions whose main concentration is on the arts are also split on this issue. Susan Kieronski, the associate director of admissions for the Rhode Island School of Design, says that a student exempted from any part of the school's established curriculum ``would be left out of things needed to make their experience unified.''

At the Maryland Institute College of Art, a 4 or 5 will eliminate one of the entry-level courses and earn the student three credits.

The College Board hires Educational Testing Service (ETS) to carry out all of its testing and result evaluation. According to Ms. Simms-Gunzenhauser, diversification in the judging process maintains a consistent standard from year to year.

``Each portfolio will be graded by a maximum of seven readers and a minimum of three,'' says Simms-Gunzenhauser. The number of readers is determined by the number of submissions received. Readers are either college or high-school AP art teachers.

The portfolios, identified by number so that the artists remain anonymous, are divided into three sections.

Before the evaluation begins, the ``chief reader'' and individual table leaders select four portfolios, which they feel are representative of the different levels of achievement. The readers evaluate them without any discussion. They then have a ``standard-setting session'' to establish a uniform criterion. This session continues until all readers are in agreement on the standard for grading.

During the actual evaluation, there are aides who keep track of the scores. If there is a discrepancy of more than two points on any portion of a portfolio, it is sent to the chief reader. He or she may simply change a grade, or if necessary call for another standard-setting session between one or all of the readers.

Last year there was a discrepancy rate of only 3 percent among the readers.

Widespread ignorance by school administrators of the program's existence is as much of a problem to the program's advocates as maintaining a standard evaluation.

Relatively few high schools offer AP Studio Arts, compared with other AP courses.

In 1988, the most popular of the AP courses was English literature, offered by 6,078 high schools. Next was calculus with 5,099. Studio Arts came in with just 600 participating schools.

Chris Davis, at Dorman High School in Spartanburg, S.C., has been teaching the AP course for nine years. She has also been one of the national judges the past two years. ``It is everything a teacher ever wanted in a program,'' she says. ``The final product is all the students' work; the teacher is just a resource,'' she says.

Betsy Horton, an art teacher at Irmo High School in Columbia, S.C., taught an art class that was geared towards independent study. She offered the AP program to anyone interested. ``I had not anticipated how much work it would be,'' she says. But the rewards were quickly visible. Of her five students who submitted portfolios, three received the highest score of 5 and two got 4s.

The College Board does not look for superior talent in every piece of the portfolio. It is more concerned with development and progression of the individual in style and expression. Simms-Gunzenhauser says that even though students' beginning works may not be terribly interesting, judges can see them experimenting and pushing their own limits. In the final evaluation, ``the work was very dynamic and much more sophisticated.''

The AP program started in 1955 with 1,229 students. Today over 400,000 participate.

Any high school may offer the AP Studio Arts course, or any AP course for that matter. All it involves is filing a form with the College Board. Although a preparatory course is not mandatory, each student must pay a fee to take the AP test. Next year's fee will be $62 for each test.

Davis praises this particular program for its ability to force students to explore and achieve on their own. ``It's a little scary for them at first, but this is what teaching should really be about.''

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