Art as a Path to Rigor

Maybe I’m missing something! The research about the benefits of exposure to rigorous course work is abundantly clear. Everyone in education knows about different learning styles. And yet, we are not looking for different “styles” of rigorous courses and doing everything we can to provide advanced coursework opportunities to as many students as possible.

Contemplating Race by Rachel Albert, art teacher
Contemplating Race by Rachel Albert, art teacher

I have to give props to our school board, though, who gets this issue. One of the goals they have in place is for 90% of graduates to take at least 1 Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course before they graduate. But this will be a challenge if we don’t change the way we think about the advanced academic courses.

I’m looking at data (Yes! Data!) for 17 high schools designated as AP (Advanced Placement) schools. Among many AP courses, each of these schools offer three AP Studio Art courses that provide students with a very different kind of rigor from the sit-at-a-desk-facing-forward-study-study-study-then-take-a-giant-test-to-see-if-you-learned type of traditionally “academic” class.

Now, there are plenty of students who are very capable of doing well in these traditionally “academic” AP classes (In fact, there always seem to be a few students who are determined and able to take 5 or 6 AP classes at the same time). BUT, there are many students who have difficulty in the academic AP  courses. There are many possible reasons for this, not least of which is that some students don’t perform well in a high-stakes testing environment.

AP Studio Art Courses (Drawing, 2D Design, and 3D Design) offer an alternative. Rather than an exam at the end of the year, these AP courses require students to submit a portfolio of work that demonstrates their learning. This alternative offers a great opportunity for students who do not test well, who are more able to demonstrate their learning by doing, or who are better able to succeed when they can spend the entire year “taking the test.”

Before we look at this data, let me be clear…

This about closing achievement gaps.

There are many opportunities for students who do well in a traditional academic environment. But if we want to close achievement gaps and approach 90% of students accessing these highest level courses, we need to find ways to provide opportunities for rigor to as many of the other students as possible.

Let’s start with something simple. This is how many AP Studio Art Portfolios were submitted last year by these 17 schools.AP Graphs_Page_1That’s a range from 4 to 79 portfolios. Anyone think all of these schools are taking full advantage of this opportunity to provide rigorous coursework to as many students as possible?

“Well,” you might say, “Maybe some of these schools have really small art departments.”

Fair enough. We can’t very well expect 50 AP portfolios if there are only 100 kids grades 9-12 taking art. Let’s compare the numbers above to the total number of students enrolled in any art class at these schools.AP Graphs_Page_2Even if we look only at the schools with over 500 kids taking art, we still have an incredible range from 79 portfolios to 13 portfolios.

There may be some reasonable percentage of the total number of art students we could expect to reach the AP level, but if we are only looking as how many students are in art classes we are missing part of the point. If we know that some students will be better able to succeed in an AP Art course compared with other AP courses, then we need to also acknowledge that these same students will find success being in art in the first place. This is before we even get to the AP issue. An AP portfolio, after all is an end point — an opportunity to show what you have learned over time. To be prepared to take AP art, you need to take art classes before that.

There is a well-established pipeline for AP courses in core curricular areas. Students who show ability in Math, English, Science, or Social Studies are encouraged to take honors level or pre-AP courses. So if we are to connect students with the opportunity for advanced coursework in art we need to get them in art classes early and prepare them for success.

Let’s look at how we are doing at that. This chart shows the same blue bars from above, re-ordered from largest art enrollment to smallest by school. Here’s what that looks like compared to the total school membership.AP Graphs_Page_3

I admit to an assumption here. I believe that of a given population of students, a fairly consistent percentage of them will have interest and potential in art. These leads me to conclude that most of these schools are not taking full advantage of art as a path to rigor. They can’t be because they are not even getting students in the art courses to allow it. The school represented on the left side of this graph has 30% of their students in an art class of some kind, while the school at the right is at 7%. Such a significant range of enrollment suggests we are missing many of our students.

What we are really talking about here is capitalization — the capitalization of human potential. Malcolm Gladwell addresses this neatly in a short video you can check out here. The capitalization question is this:

What percentage of a population are achieving at the level to which they are capable?

Or stated in a manner directly connected with AP Studio Art:

What percentage of students capable of successfully completing an AP Studio Art class, are getting that chance?

I cannot believe we are achieving good capitalization rates when two schools with 550 and 600 art students (total) are nearly the same size as two other schools that have only 100 and 150 art students. I do not believe that ONLY 1 PERCENT of students are capable of being successful in AP Art when we have an example, here, of a school that has nearly 4 percent. These are really poor capitalization rates!


Our ability to have better capitalization rates in AP Art is hindered by pervasive personal and cultural beliefs. And art teachers are guilty too!

Carol Dweck‘s research articulates the distinction between a fixed and growth mindset (a big enough topic for it’s own post). Educators (including art teachers), students, and our culture in general, too often have a fixed mindset about ability in art. People believe you either have talent, or you don’t. That you are creative, or you aren’t. This is the fixed mindset, and this mindset leads to low enrollment and a low cap rate for AP Art.

To reach more students (not for selfish reasons, but FOR THE STUDENTS) we need to have a growth mindset about learning in art. A growth mindset means that we believe students can learn the skills and knowledge to be successful. We need to share and spread this mindset as well, within our schools, with our administrators, and with our school counselors.

We have a lot of work to do in this area, but I believe it is important work that can lead to valuing and finding the potential in all of our students. I challenge you to think about ways to look at your students, and look at the data.

  • How can you find students in your school who might find success in art?
  • How might you work with school counselors to look at students when they come to you in Art 1 to identify students who might benefit from the opportunity to reach the AP level in your classes.
  • Look at your enrollment data, like we have done here? What percentage of students are taking art classes in the first place to open this opportunity for them? What are the reasons for your enrollment rates?
  • How can you improve capitalization rates for student success in art?

3 thoughts on “Art as a Path to Rigor”

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