AHTR Reports on AP Art History (part I)

The College Board has released a significant revision of the curriculum for Advanced Placement (AP) Art History that goes into effect in 2015-2016. This presents the opportunity to encourage greater exchange between secondary and university educators who have developed innovative teaching methods that can be effective at any level of art historical study. While we initially saw a post on AP Art History as a way to invite K-12 educators into the AHTR community, we discovered the topic opens a door to much bigger concerns.

The first of a two-part series written by Dana Howard, Artstor’s Senior K-12 Relationship Manager, and AHTR Contributing Editor Virginia Spivey, this week’s post raises questions about the current role of art history in K-12 learning and its relationship to the discipline as a whole. Next week, we’ll look more closely at the AP Art History curriculum and some of the resources that support it.  


Art History in High School

As art historians, we often hear stories from people we meet–at a dinner party, the doctor’s office, the bookstore, or our kids’ school–about some profound experience they once had in a college art history class. Although such moments demonstrate the impact art history can have on an individual’s intellectual development or world view, they remain at odds with popular stereotypes that depict the discipline as elitist, esoteric, and impractical.

One reason may be that art history lacks visibility within K-12 education in the U.S. Students do not enter college with an understanding of the discipline, and their first (often only) exposure to art history is as a breadth elective. In high school, art historical content is sometimes included in humanities or world history classes, but this treatment skews toward the use of canonical objects (typically from the European tradition) as illustrations of cultural achievement. When art history is taught in the context of studio art, formal and technical issues may be prioritized, or emphasis given to the stylistic characteristics of a particular artist or movement. Schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum include art history within the visual arts course of study, but not as a separate class.

While art museums help fill this gap, their impact is greatest in the lower grades.  Although budget cuts and mandatory testing schedules have reduced field trips throughout K-12, shorter class periods, conflicting student schedules, and teachers with multiple classes make them even more difficult for high schools. As an alternative, some museums provide after school or independent programs for teens that may emphasize art history. Likewise, museums offer teachers art historical resources and opportunities for professional development to help them to integrate this material in their classes. However, such opportunities rely on the motivation of the individual teacher or student, and ultimately remain outside the school’s required curriculum.

When art history does appear as an independent course, it is most often linked to the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program. In the high school curriculum, students usually have only one arts elective for the entire four years. Once this requirement is satisfied, many college-bound students move toward filling their transcript with rigorous classes. While art history clearly meets this demand and builds skills that extend well-beyond the discipline, the AP label still seems necessary to justify art history as a legitimate academic course in most high schools.

AP Art History is offered in about 2400 public and private high schools, including classes taught through online educational providers. To receive the AP designation, teachers must submit a course syllabus to the College Board for approval. Both school administrators and parents find benefits in the AP program. It allows students to take university level courses, which appear on their transcript and may bolster their class ranking to give them a competitive edge with college admissions officers. Students who pass the standardized AP exam are eligible to receive college credit and/or place out of introductory-level courses in their freshman year, theoretically allowing them to graduate earlier and save money on tuition.

Although the AP designation is essential to art history’s current place in the K-12 curriculum, this affiliation links the discipline to negative opinions of the AP program at large. Critics question the claims of AP supporters, pointing to low pass rates on exams and colleges that do not give AP credit. They posit these courses do not provide a rigorous academic experience, but rather emphasize rote memorization and superficial coverage of broad content. Concerns also exist around the increased pressure AP courses place on students, and the disadvantage to minorities and low income student in the battle for college admission.

While some of these issues are addressed by the revised AP Art History curriculum, these connotations help maintain the detrimental belief that art history is elitist, or superfluous to K-12 education. Furthermore, combined with the small number of students served by AP Art History, such negative perceptions contribute to a tacit indifference among academics, museums, and publishers to support the program. We will continue this discussion next week when we examine the new AP Art History curriculum in greater detail and consider the implications for its impact on the field.


Dana Howard is the Senior K-12 Relationship Manager for Artstor. In addition to teaching Art History and Humanities at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities for 13 years, she developed and taught the online Art History curriculum for the South Carolina Virtual School Program and served on the AP Art History Test Development Committee for the College Board.

Virginia B. Spivey is a contributing editor to AHTR, an independent art historian and educator with 20 years experience in museum and academic settings.  Based near Washington, DC, she currently teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art and develops on-line educational resources, including AP Art History materials for Smarthistory at the Khan Academy.  

3 responses to “AHTR Reports on AP Art History (part I)”

  1. […] The College Board has released a significant revision of the curriculum for Advanced Placement (AP) Art History that goes into effect in 2015–16. This presents the opportunity to encourage greater exchange between secondary and university educators who have developed innovative teaching methods that can be effective at any level of art-historical study. (Read more from Art History Teaching Resources.) […]

  2. Ben Lima says:

    Thank you very much for posting this. I found it through CAA News, and look forward to further discussion.

    Although I have been teaching art history at the university level for several years, I myself had no formal exposure to the discipline in my own high-school curriculum, nor have virtually any of my undergraduate or graduate students. So, I know virtually nothing about the state of art history in high schools, and look forward to learning more.

  3. […] month I published a series of reports on AHTR about AP Art History (part I 3/20/15 and part 2 3/27/15). Written collaboratively with the wonderful Dana Howard, Senior K-12 […]

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