Assessing Changes to the AP United States History Exam

Taking An Exam

For too long, the Advanced Placement United States History Exam hasn’t really been a “history test.”

I know. I taught the course for two years, before finally realizing the College Board is more interested in robotic responses rather than skilled critical analysis.

I do take comfort in knowing that starting next fall, the College Board will introduce a redesigned (and improved) AP U.S. history exam, in part, the company’s website says, to “relieve pressure and free teachers to engage students deeply in exploring, understanding, and interpreting major historical events.” I strongly support assessing students on more relevant skills, especially historical interpretation and periodization.

Along these lines, I like what I hear when speaking with Prof. Suzanne Sinke, who served as Co-Chair of the College Board’s Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee for AP U.S. History.

“There is still a body of knowledge that is tied to the curriculum, but the emphasis will be based much more on skills,” says Sinke, who is also  director of graduate studies for the Department of History at Florida State University. “It moves us toward making this not so much what you have memorized, but what you have learned.”

The existing exam will be administered one last time this spring. The opening section includes 80 multiple-choice questions, assessing students on virtually everything and anything dealing with the entirety of American history. To do well, dedicated students spend hours memorizing textbooks and answers to frequently-asked multiple-choice questions. Afterward, they can more or less trick the system by responding correctly on exam day, all without really understanding why an answer is correct. This involves hard work, but it’s often all for naught. After the AP exam is administered in May, several weeks of school remains.

My second (and final) year of teaching the course, shortly before school ended, I asked four students to humor me by completing a 20-question multiple choice quiz. Only one of them received a perfect score. The other three each got 5-8 questions wrong, but all of them would earn high scores the AP U.S. exam.

According to the exam’s new curriculum framework, a major design change calls for fewer multiple-choice questions. Better still, students will interpret an array of primary and secondary sources to select correct responses.

“The multiple-choice questions will largely focus on analysis of source material, rather than recall of facts across the curriculum,” according to Kate Levin, a College Board spokesperson who forwarded me her company’s remarks. Teachers will also be responsible for teaching only topics explicitly labeled in the curriculum framework as “essential knowledge.”

I acknowledge that with a redesigned exam placing heavier emphasis on primary source analysis, teachers will have more cause to venture beyond mere textbook-based instruction. Still, I’m uncertain that this will also hold true with secondary sources, even as Sinke tells me, “We really wanted people to teach what they love, and things that are of interest to them.”

I would have loved to spend more than a week or two on Civil War Reconstruction, and even assign my AP students historian Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction. I’m unconvinced that next year’s changes will dramatically slow down or shape the course’s focus, but I hope I’m wrong.

I do hold the AP U.S. history exam’s existing writing portion in higher regard; it requires scholarly analysis and interpretation, even if students derive most of their understanding from a textbook. But overall, I’m not too optimistic that changes to the AP U.S. history-curriculum, however welcome, will make learning more meaningful and lasting.

All the same, I take some comfort in a July 23, 2013 article published by the Organization of American Historians (OAH), “Redesigning Advanced Placement U.S. History,” by a director of curriculum and content development at The College Board. “My hope is that the effort to redesign AP U.S. history can mark the beginning of a much-needed debate about the goals and benefits to our society of rigorous exploration of the past,” writes Lawrence Charap in OAH Magazine of History

Now, there’s something I hope everybody can agree on.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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