The College Board is changing the AP course to reverse the cultural and racial bias found in the art world

Historians in the News
tags: AP exam, AP art history



Imagine having to select just 250 works of art and architecture, spanning all humankind, Paleolithic man to Maya Lin. Such was the Herculean task the College Board—the organization that oversees Advanced Placement classes—shouldered when it relaunched AP art history this fall. The course had been lacking on two fronts: one pedagogical, the other cultural. So, several years ago, the College Board convened a group of professors and teachers to condense its curriculum, for the first time, into a set of several hundred exemplary works, across as many artistically significant cultures as possible.

Diversifying a syllabus, however, isn’t the same as diversifying a classroom. White juniors and seniors still take AP exams at disproportionately higher rates than their Hispanic, Native American, or black peers, according to College Board data. In 2015, only 2,072 of the country’s schools offered AP art history. So while the new AP-history curriculum requires students to make cross-cultural connections, there’s still a fundamental racial divide in AP art-history classes and exposure to art history that a redesigned course doesn’t address.

And unfortunately, this divide persists on a larger scale. A report by the Mellon Foundation assessed gender and ethnic diversity among museum staff in the United States: 84 percent of the high-level and leadership positions were occupied by white staffers, while black employees held just 4 percent of them. In fact, a survey of “Diversity in the New York City Cultural Community,” released last week found “curators” to be “the whitest” job category in the arts, with 79 percent identifying as non-white Hispanic.

For many students—including myself in the 1990s—the AP course was a blitzkrieg through centuries of art history. The College Board’s previous materials never specified that instructors acquaint students with a particular list of works. Because the entire textbook was up for grabs, teachers often drilled students on vast amounts of information and showed their classes over 1,000 works—hoping enough of them would look familiar to test takers on the year’s given AP exam. This scattershot approach left teachers little time to discuss the definition of art, how it changes, and why particular works acquire meaning—the kind of fluency demanded by upper-level college courses. The new emphasis on a defined set of work does give teachers considerably less leeway over which art to teach, but the redesigned framework is more focused and less didactic. It’s a finite universe meant to encourage better analysis, leaving room to teach art history, as opposed to spending so much energy on pattern recognition. 

The course’s second problem, however, proved to be much more complex: It mirrored the broad cultural bias found in the art world—and rewriting history is a painstaking process. As with most art-history classes, the old test was largely Eurocentric, according to John Williamson, the vice president of AP curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the College Board. Roughly 65 percent of the course content is still art considered within the Western tradition. Now, 35 percent—around 87 artworks—come from “other artistic traditions.” ...




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