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Reading the Portfolio

I've been privileged to be an AP Reader for the last five years. Here how the judging is done and some thoughts about the process that I hope will help you earn the highest score possible.

In the first week in May, you'll turn in your portfolio to the campus AP coordinator for judging. The coordinator or teacher will check a checkbox on his program that says your digital submissions are complete, honest and ready to be judged. He'll also pack up your Quality works and send them on to the College Board. While you are done with the process and have nothing to do but wait for your scores, at the College Board their job is just beginning.

The College Board calls this judging process "reading the portfolio" and the judges who give you your grade are called "readers". There are about 125 readers who are hired from across the country. About half of them are high school teachers and about half are college foundation teachers (foundation classes in college are Art 1/2, Basic Design, Painting 1 or 2, etc). An average of 4 of the high school teachers are from Texas. The college teachers are there to make sure the work that gets a 3 or above really shows that those kids can skip a foundatation college class (like Drawing 101) and are prepared to go in to the sophomore or junior level class and not be behind. There are about 75 high school teachers who are there to make sure that the high school voice is represented. All of the teachers come from the top programs in the country. There are over 100 applicants for every position that opens up.

In 2014, over 45,000 portfolios were submitted to the College Board. About half are AP2D, about 30% are Draw and the rest are 3D. Each portfolio section is read three times and the score of the three readers is averaged together to give you your score in each section. When all sections are graded they are averaged to give you your overall score.

This year's reading was in Salt Lake City, UT at a massive convention center in downtown Salt Lake City. The entire downtown area was taken up by the College Board, who had the AP Studio readers there, as well as AP Goverment, Art History, European History, French, German, Latin and Music Theory. We all ate in cafeteria and for all intents and purposes lived in the convention center. There were probably about 3,500 readers there, overall, along with all of the support staff and managers, and technicians

So, think of the math... there are 45,000 portfolios with three sections each and each section is read three times. That's over 405,000 individual views! And it's all done in one week! It's an amazing process that takes a lot of coordination and very hard work on the part of the readers and staff.


The readers eat each breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

Readers look at slides that train them to set a common standard for grading.


Here is what the Quality Section looks like. Your work is in a huge room, piled under folding tables. Workers come and lay each piece on on a row of tables. Each table holds about 10 students' work. The rows of tables are arranged in "pods" of 6. Three readers will walk down one row, reading and grading each student. Behind them a "band-aider" will walk and cover up the score the reader puts on your pink sheet. When the reader gets to the end, he waits until all three are done with the row and then all three switch off and go down a new row. It's like a square dance and this ensures that each Quality section is read by three different readers, all of whom have no idea what the other readers scored. When those three rows are done, the readers move to the next three in the pod and workers rush out to pack up the finished row and lay out new work so that the readers never stop walking and never have to wait for new works to be layed out. The room is very, very quiet even though there are dozens of pods, and a hundred people working at band-aiding (covering up scores so the next reader isn't influenced by the previous score), laying out porfolios and packing up the finished works.


The 2D Quality portfolios are being set up. The portfolios are brought in by semis that drive right on to the floor and distributed by fork lift.

After all of the Quality section is done, the portfolios are individually boxed up and mailed back to the students.


All of the work that is submitted digitally is read on computers. The screen layout looks very much like the screen you see when you submit your work. A reader will be "standard set" at the beginning of each new portfolio session. Standard setting is a training exercise where we go over the rubric (the same one you use in this class) and we look at sample work drawn from this year's portfolios and all agree to what level of ability makes a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 portfolio.

Each section is read by three different readers and the room is deathly quiet. There is no talking, no I-Pods, no music, no getting up and walking around. The table leaders (group leaders) will make everyone get up and stretch every now and then. One of the things that kept the arduous process fun was that during the stretches we would have dance lessons and a Table Leader would jump up and teach everyone the steps to the cha-cha or rumba. Can you imagine 125 middle-aged, dance-challenged art teachers all standing up and doing the salsa in front of their computers like they were on "Dancing With the Stars"? It was one of my more surreal moments!


The computer area where the readers look at the work submitted through the website.

Readers read each Concentration statement.


We worked very hard and the readers take their choices very seriously. At the end of each reading section, when all the portfolios for one section (like AP Draw Concentration) have been completed, a huge cheer goes up and everyone dances and claps. If you are working in another section, you can hear the cheer and you know that one section hurdle has been completed and that the next one is coming up.


Portfolios ready to be mailed back.


Here are some notes I wrote down from the 2010 reading....

  • Some readers say they've never seen their own student's work but on my first morning of reading 2D Quality I'm walking down a row and see a familiar style of matting. I stop dead. We can't read our own students work and there was one of my student's Quality portfolio on my row!!!! For a minute my heart sank and my mind went blank. Someone had stolen her work!! Then my brain went back in gear and realized what was happening. I had to stop the whole pod and wait for a table leader to come in and grade in my place. I was frantic that I had compromised my own student's work, but I was assured I had handled it just right. Later, the same thing happened with W. Ellis and L. Bernard and during the 2D Breadth, E. Pennington's work came across my screen. In every case, I simply sent the work on to the table leaders and they took care of it by grading it themselves. It was considered to be a freaky thing to run across so many of your own student's work. What are the odd of winning a one in 405,000 lottery!
  • Readers take the art very seriously. The room is dead quiet.
  • Helpers are very careful when they pack and unpack the art. They are well-trained and try their best to respect the art and the process.
  • The readers look at each artwork through the lens of 2D rubric in the 2D portfolio and the lens of Drawing rubric in the Draw portfolio. I saw a lot of portfolios in the Draw section that would have gotten a higher score in 2D and vice versa.

    When I was reading the portfolios, these points jumped out. When you're reading literally hundreds of works a day, you see the same thing over and over. You see the same mistakes, the same class assignments, the same subjects and the same approaches to solving problems. This gets really boring and one thing you want to do [Mrs. Taylor's Life Lesson #1], is never bore a judge.

  • A good concentration theme will compensate for some less than stellar drawing skills. Imagination and creativity count a lot. Excellent technical skill will not overcome boring, stiff, static art or a concentration that shows no variation, growth, risk-taking or creativity. Good technique will get you a 4, but it takes something more than good quality classroom assignments to move that score to a 5.
  • The readers favorite word is VERVE!!!. We are constantly looking for work that shows technical skill AND is fluid, creative, and imaginative.
  • Detail shots come under two headings- true details or padding. True details show important bits of your work that enhance the understanding of the artwork and help the reader give an intelligent grade. Padding is simply another shot of the artwork, only a bit closer, because you don't have something else to put in that slot. Padding to fill out an incomplete portfolio is very, very evident to the reader and lower grades are assigned based on incomplete portfolios. If your work does not show the effort and technical skill that required you to dedicated your entire portfolio on fewer pieces than is suggested, then the detail shots will be seen as padding and readers hate to see that. It's very hard to give athe same grade to one student who submits 9 strong works and 3 mediocre that showed risk-taking in his concentration and then also give a that same grade to a student who submits 9 strong works and 3 uninformative details. Who did more work and who tried to stretch himself as an artist?
  • Don't try to snow the readers with details scattered in the submission page as if they're separate works of art, but not listed as details. We see them and don't think they're extra works. We think they're cheating and they will be considered as if they are empty spots.

    Things I Saw You Should Avoid

  • Too many macro flower pics. Too many dandylions! To many single-red-leaf-on-sidewalk for Emphasis! Too many barren trees to illustrate Line!
  • Readers DO notice gross art and don't like it. [Mrs. Taylor's Life Lesson #2] Don't do disgusting, gross or perverted work just to try to be controversial. It's not edgy; it's just off-putting.
  • Too many "All-About"Me" concentrations. Yes, you're cute. But not that cute. Please refer back to Life Lesson #1.
  • Too many soulful-girls-looking-out-of-window images.
  • Too many anguished figures crouched in fetal positions in corners. ( life that bad?)
  • Too many snap shots and self-portraits in Quality. Mix up the quality work.
  • Too many landscapes with no focal point... or no point at all, for that matter.
  • Do NOT put digital or photographic work in the Draw Portfolio. It says that is against the Draw rules on the poster. Pay attention to the poster. Follow the poster literally. Do NOT think "they'll be OK if I break this rule". "They" are not OK with it.
  • Too many shots of close ups of rusty metal / steps leading to nowhere / angled up-shots of tall office buildings. If you can find an original way to set up a shot that is usually considered trite, extra points to you!
  • No puppies, no kittens, no lions/tigers/ bears... Oh My!
  • No movie stars, unless Alicia Keyes or Beyonce is a close, personal friend of yours, avoid them. If they ARE a close personal friend, introduce me.
  • No clowns. Please.
  • No dragons or copied cartoon characters (anime', Marvel Comics, memes off the internet)

    Things I Saw You Should Consider Doing

  • Big art does stand out. It's eye candy and makes the judge pay a bit more attention. Work big and print off big pictures if you can afford it.
  • Mats don't matter... ours are fine. Most work looks best on black mats, but the grey ones work out well, too. The white mats don't seem to display the work as well as it can in the big, brightly lit rooms and laying on white tables.
  • Anime' and Manga MUST be fresh and original. You can get a good score in 2D with this, but not in Draw and ONLY if you are original in your approach and have truely EXCELLENT quality. Believe me, a reader sees so much of this style that we know excellent work when we see it even if we are ancient.
  • We need more pics/drawings of people doing things/activity/action/working. These works stand out in a sea of passive, empty, inactive images. I saw loads of photo portfolios that didn't have a single action shot or a living thing in them.
  • Unusual angles, foreshortening and tightly cropped pictures and drawings stand out.
  • Don't do more than two artworks with the same composition in your Concentration Section unless the composition is the point of the concentration, such as in a magazine layout concentration. Ask yourself if the same composition is creating unity across your concentration or is simply laziness and being unimaginative. It's best not to have any repeats in Breadth or Quality, too, if you can manage it. The wider your range of work, the higher your score will be.
  • Perfect copies of photographs are not appreciated; human xerox machines are not loved. Put some personality in the work.
  • Make sure your photos are right side up, readers don't turn the photos. We can't in the digital submissions. We assume what you sent in was correct and oriented the way you wanted us to see it.
  • Make sure the 3D photos are of two different views. Make sure we can see the volume of the 3D piece.
  • Show the complete work, readers can't grade what they can't see. This is especially important in 3D portfolios.
  • Humor is good. Readers have a sense of humor.
  • End strong. I can't say that enough. Put your strongest work at the end of Breadth and Concentration sections. The readers look at a slide show of your work and the last works are the ones you want to leave the best impression before they hit that score button. Put your weakest works in the middle. If you must arrange your Concentration work in a specific order for your theme to make sense, then break this rule, but ask yourself if there is a way to change your last works to end strong.

    When the portfolios are all graded they are sent back to the students. You'll get yours back around the end of June. In your portfolio you'll find a packing list... that number 5 is not your score! It's the number of works that were sent back to you! Your score will come in later a separate regular envelope. You can access your scores online at the College Board website, just the same way you can access your SAT scores.


    No matter how experienced you are as a reader, you keep referring back to the rubric. It's our Bible and the readers follow it as closely as they can.

    When a section is completed, the entire room erupts in cheers!

             Alice Taylor, Instructor .:. school email.:. 254-336-0800 .:. © 2014