Curriculum Approaches

How to Easily Break Down AP Art and Design Portfolios

Shriya Deshmukh artwork

In 2019, College Board  revamped the structure and assessment of the Advanced Placement Art and Design Portfolios (previously known as AP Studio Art). This threw many teachers for a loop. After spending years perfecting pacing schedules and lesson plans, teachers weren’t exactly sure where to start. Whether you are new to AP or a veteran teacher, understanding the portfolio can be a bit confusing.

Let’s break down what this portfolio is all about so we can prepare students for submission.

Madelene Przybysz artwork
Image courtesy of Madelene Przybysz

The AP portfolio is a collection of process images, finished artworks, and writing that emphasizes critical thinking and intentional decision-making. Artworks must show an understanding of design and art concepts. They must also show a synthesis of materials and ideas through practice, experimentation, and revision. In the two portions of the exam, students will create anywhere from six to twenty developed artworks.

Students can develop artwork for either 2D Design, 3D Design, or the 2D Drawing portfolio. They can submit to more than one portfolio in a given year (or over two years), but there must be completely separate and unique artworks per portfolio. While all three portfolios are structured the same, each is assessed based on different visual concerns. Therefore, each portfolio has a specific rubric with different criteria.

Portfolios are submitted both digitally and physically (see below) for scoring. The deadline for submission is typically within the first two weeks of May.

Holly Qian artwork
Image courtesy of Holly Qian

To help make the requirements easier to understand, we created an at-a-glance guide just for you! This will be a handy download to keep bookmarked on your computer or posted on your bulletin board.

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The Breakdown

In order to make the shift into the portfolio requirements, there are a few big changes from the previous portfolio to keep in mind.

Structure: The portfolio is divided into two sections instead of three.

Previously, the AP portfolio consisted of three sections:

  1. Breadth: 12 artworks that demonstrate a range of methods and approaches.
  2. Concentration: 12 artworks that respond to a chosen theme or topic.
  3. Quality: 5 artworks that show the best quality, pulled from the Breadth or Concentration sections or completely separate artwork.

The new portfolio consists of the following two sections:

  1. Sustained Investigation: 15 images relating to a student-developed inquiry question.
  2. Selected Works: 5 high-quality artworks.

Cecilia Li artwork
Image courtesy of Cecilia Li

Artwork Requirements: There are fewer artworks required and the expectations have changed.

In the previous portfolio, students created around 24 resolved artworks. Now, AP asks students to submit 15 images for the Sustained Investigation and 5 artworks for the Selected Works portion.

Students do not have to submit 15 finished artworks for the new Sustained Investigation but rather 15 “images.” This is a bit challenging to wrap your head around. With this new Sustained Investigation, the emphasis is on demonstrating practice, experimentation, and revision through a variety of images. Of course, students can submit 15 finished artworks in which those processes are visually evident. Students could also, for example, submit 8-10 finished artworks along with some revision and process images. Or a student could even submit one complex artwork, such as a mural, with 14 process and revision images.

The Selected Works can come from the Sustained Investigation but they don’t have to. Therefore, students do not need to develop more than 15 artworks. This feels more manageable than the previous requirements, especially with limited class time.

Khora Finch artwork
Image courtesy of Khora Finch

Assessment: The portfolio focuses on the development of ideas, processes, and synthesis of media over time.

Both Sustained Investigation and Selected Works are steeped in connecting visual artistic decisions evident in the artwork with critical thinking and intentional decision making.

The Sustained Investigation is inquiry-based. Starting with an inquiry question, students then develop artworks that answer the inquiry. This often results in the creation of a new set of questions that leads students down a rabbit hole of conceptual thinking. According to AP, the artworks must “demonstrate your inquiry-based sustained investigation of materials, processes, and ideas done over time through practice, experimentation, and revision.”

Similar to the previous portfolio, the Selected Works includes the students’ best works. However, these works also should “demonstrate skillful synthesis of materials, processes, and ideas.”

For example, a student may create a self-portrait painted with acrylic paint. In this portfolio, the student would need to explain the why, the how, and the connection between decisions made and the completed artwork.

When it comes to assessment, AP provides a rubric with established criteria for each section. Make sure to reference these rubrics as you assess student work. While all three portfolios address the same overarching concepts of the Sustained Investigation and the Selected Works, each portfolio (2D Design, 2D Drawing, or 3D Design) has different criteria for their visual concerns and artistic methods.

The Sustained Investigation has weighted categories within the rubric and is scored on a 3 point scale. It is weighted heavily at 60% of the total portfolio score. The Selected Works portion is scored holistically on a 5 point scale and is worth 40% of the overall score.

Alexander Burke artwork
Image courtesy of Alexander Burke

Writing: The portfolio includes writing which is weighted more heavily than in the past.

Similar to the previous portfolio, students still write an artist statement that is 1200 characters, split into two sections that are 600 characters each. This statement examines their Sustained Investigation from inquiry question to supporting evidence. Students use this space to communicate ideas. The first section identifies the inquiry question. The second section describes how processes and ideas used in their artworks relate to their inquiry. Both sections are assessed using different parts of the Sustained Investigation rubric.

In addition, each image has space to include a short amount of text. For each image, students have 100 characters to explain processes explored and 100 characters for materials used. This is the case for both the Sustained Investigation and Selected Works. According to the rubric, much greater consideration is given to student writing than in the previous portfolio.

Submission and Scoring: The portfolio submission process is similar to previous years.

The Sustained Investigation is a digital submission process for all three portfolios through the AP College Board site. The Selected Works are a digital submission for the 3D Design portfolio and the 2D Design and 2D Drawing portfolios. In previous years when work was sent physically, your school’s AP coordinator would receive portfolios and labels for students to pack their works, as well as large boxes to ship the work to AP. Artworks must be flat (no stretcher bars), no larger than 18×24” (though high-quality printed reproductions are acceptable), and could be matted and/or mounted for rigid support. Artwork would be returned back to students’ homes after scoring, sometime in late summer.

Both digital and physical works will be scored by teams of art educators who apply for the opportunity to be an AP Reader. These readers attend training with practice portfolios. Artwork and computers line tables in a large hangar. Because of the large amount of work to score, readers spend mere minutes of time reviewing each portfolio. Therefore, their scoring practices must be well-aligned with the rubrics. Portfolios are scored by more than one reader to check for reliability and each section is scored by a different group of readers.

The portfolios are then scored out of a total of 6. You will notice, however, that the final score is out of a possible 5 points. When scoring out of 6 possible points, a bell curve is created to develop a mean, and scores are aligned to a 5-point scale.

Shriya Deshmukh artwork
Image courtesy of Shriya Deshmukh

Navigating the Portfolio

To learn more about this process and about the AP exam, you can attend a workshop offered by College Board. The in-person, week-long sessions are often hosted by local universities around the US. I recommend attending a session to further understand the portfolio and scoring processes. AP Classroom is another great resource for you and your students. Teachers can register for AP Webinars and subscribe to the AP YouTube Channel for videos that explain these concepts further. You can even take a look at previous sample portfolios and scoring rationale (this one is for 2D Design) through the College Board site.

As you learn to navigate the ins and outs of the Advanced Placement Art and Design portfolios, you will find yourself pushing students’ thinking. While the new portfolio is challenging, it’s exciting to watch students make deeper connections with their artmaking practices. Completing a portfolio and submitting it to AP is a huge accomplishment. Regardless of the score, celebrate your students (and yourself!) for this tremendous feat.

For more conversations around AP Art and Design, check out these two podcast episodes:

  1. Breaking Down AP Portfolios, Part 1 (Ep. 289)
  2. Breaking Down AP Portfolios, Part 2 (Ep. 290)

What is still puzzling to you about the updated AP requirements?

What other AP resources have been helpful to you?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Janet Taylor

Janet Taylor, a high school art educator, is also AOEU’s K–12 Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer. She geeks out about choice-based curriculum, assessment strategies, and equipping new teachers.

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