Advanced Placement (AP) Studio Art is an influential force in secondary art education as is evident in the 31,800 portfolios submitted for review in 2008 (A. Sims-Gunzenhauser, personal communication, August 11, 2008). From the perspectives of a high school educator and AP Reader, I have observed how the constraints of the AP program can be used to generate support for high school art programs and opportunities for large numbers of students to be seriously engaged with art learning. The AP portfolio can function as an "enabling constraint" for secondary art education. An enabling constraint creates structure and coherence by constraining a domain while simultaneously engendering unanticipated, imaginative, and divergent outcomes or responses (Davis, Sumara, & Luce- Kapler, 2008). The AP Studio Art program also shapes student artmaking, primarily through the constraints of the portfolio assessment. The character of these constraints and whether they enable desirable outcomes are worth considering in the context of recurring questions about what constitutes foundational knowledge in studio art.
The AP program can be an effective means to advocate for high school art programs because AP participation is highly valued by parents, school leaders, and colleges (Freedman & Krugman, 2001). Although the degree to which colleges accept AP courses for credit or advanced placement varies, participation in AP courses is viewed favorably by colleges and successful performance in AP courses correlates positively with success in college courses (Dougherty, Mellor, & Jian, 2005; Geiser & Santelices, 2004). The College Board has established educational policies that support high school art teachers, equitable access to its programs, collaboration among college and secondary faculty, and curricula that are analogous with some college foundation courses.
Although certain schools reserve advanced art classes for an elite handful of students, I have observed many other schools that extend the program to a wide and diverse range of students. These schools recruit students who might not otherwise enroll in AP courses by reducing enrollment barriers and preparing students within a broad array of courses prior to their junior or senior years. This is consistent with the College Board's policy of open access to AP courses (Freedman & Krugman, 2001). While equitable access remains a challenge, initiatives such as College Board start up grants designed to give traditionally underrepresented students access to AP courses have successfully involved significantly more students in the program (College Board, 2008). In the schools where I have worked, active recruitment, open enrollment, and expansion of the program to include photography and digital media encouraged many more students to enroll in AP Studio Art. The enormous variety of skill, experience, and content that is evident in the portfolios at the annual AP Reading supports the inference that students with a broad range of art experience are participating in the program.
However, a large-scale assessment such as the AP portfolio runs the risk of breaking down the complex relationships among process, context, and culture into discrete and formalist parts, particularly when the evaluation focuses on the artifacts of student production taken out of context (Boughton, 2004). Springgay (2006) argued that authentic assessment is impossible without considering curriculum, teaching, and assessment as part of an inseparable relational dynamic. Can an evaluation that removes artistic production from the context of its creation properly support the complexities of artistic practice and ways of knowing? The AP portfolio requirements enable the art teacher to develop a curriculum of relatively unstructured tasks that encompass a wide variety of media and conceptual approaches, allowing students freedom in solving each section of the portfolio. The concentration section of the portfolio, in particular, emphasizes individual investigation of ideas and relationships between form and meaning. …