College Board Unclear on Textbooks and New AP U.S. History Course

Full length of a female student sitting against bookshelf and re

Most AP U.S. History textbooks exceed 1,000 pages, including recent editions of The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society, The Enduring Vision, and The American Pageant.

In January, I highlighted my concerns in a Jan. 31 article for The Atlantic, “Down With Textbooks.”

  1. Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.
  2. Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.
  3. Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing.
  4. Most importantly—and this merits repeating—textbooks are boring and intimidating.
  5. Textbooks can serve as a crutch for teachers who don’t know history or the historian’s craft.

For that story, College Board Spokeswoman Katherine Levin emailed me her company’s stance on how the redesigned AP. U.S. History course, which will be offered for the first time next fall, will “lessen emphasis on textbook learning.”

The email also reads, “AP Teachers are not required to use a textbook so long as the instructional materials listed on their syllabus meet the requirements set forth by the AP Course Audit.”

Full email from Levin

Download (PDF, Unknown)

With the recent release of the College Board’s revamped Course and Exam Description, however, it seems that somebody at the organization is being misinformed, minds can’t be made up, or serious clarification needs to be offered.

Under “Curricular Requirements,” one criterion reads, “The course includes a college-level U.S. history textbook, diverse primary sources, and secondary sources written by historians or scholars interpreting the past.”

Under “Resource Requirements,” another criterion reads, “The school ensures that each student has a college-level U.S. history textbook (supplemented when necessary to meet the curricular requirements) for individual use inside and outside of the classroom.”

AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Download (PDF, Unknown)

I’m not sure what’s going on at the College Board, and I would welcome any clarification.

All the same, I earned my BA and MA in history at Brandeis University, a top academic institution. I never learned primarily from any one book, and certainly not one gigantic textbook. My professors made learning exciting, always assigning a diverse, thought-provoking array of primary and secondary sources. For me, that made my understanding of history more meaningful, and thereby lasting. At Brandeis, I learned to internalize information, not merely store it in my short-term memory. It’s unfortunate that the AP U.S. History curriculum, at least in its current form, too often serves the latter.

I recently spoke with Dr. Aldo Regalado, my colleague in the history department at Palmer Trinity—where I too teach in Palmetto Bay, Florida—what he thinks about textbook-based history learning.  Regalado, who currently teaches AP U.S. history, has especially keen insight; he also teaches history at the University of Miami and Florida International University.

I have never taken or taught a college-level U.S. history course that earnestly used a textbook—ever,” Regalado says. “As an undergraduate, my survey course professors would typically assign a textbook—I suppose because they felt they had to—but the entire course would be based on their lectures and on non-textbook readings, mostly focused and nuanced academic articles or primary sources. Because of this, I don’t use textbooks in my own high school and college-level courses. I provide my students with context using far more efficient means, and then they go deep into case studies, either by reading primary sources or, better yet, by engaging in their own independent research, writing, and presentation projects. They come out of that experience with a real passion—a real sense of ownership and an appreciation for questioning and deeper thinking.

When it comes to the AP U.S. history exam, Regalado says he also has no choice but to compromise his no-textbook approach. It’s impossible to teach the current curriculum effectively without having students read a textbook in its entirety. Unless they do so, they simply won’t pick up the facts they need to be competitive on the test in May, and that’s essentially what they’re signing up for—the test. Like me, Regalado is unsure if the redesigned exam will adequately address that problem.

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 the College Board’s email to me. Teachers will also be responsible for teaching only topics explicitly labeled in the curriculum framework as “essential knowledge.”

I acknowledge that with a redesigned (and much better) exam placing heavier emphasis on primary source analysis, teachers will have more cause to venture beyond the textbook. Still, I’m uncertain that this will also hold true with secondary sources. 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 the rate 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.

I applaud the College Board for removing a third essay question, and, in its place, introducing four short-answer questions, some of which ask students to interpret primary and secondary sources. Judging by my experience at Brandeis, that format is more representative of a college-level exam.

Moving forward, I just hope that honesty, transparency and level-headedness prevail.

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.


  • Reply July 9, 2014

    Evelyn Krieger

    David, which textbook would you use if you had to for APUSH next fall? Do you think it’s necessary to purchase a brand new redesigned text (as opposed to the previous edition)?

    • Reply July 11, 2014

      David Cutler

      Hi Evelyn,

      Great question. That’s a great question. To be perfectly frank, I’m not too sure how to advise—mostly because the College Board hasn’t been sufficiently clear with advertising and educating students and teachers alike on the new course requirements. I’m also not sure how quickly textbook companies (for however much I disdain them) have caught up. Having said this, I don’t think it much matters if you use an older textbook. I used Brinkley and Foner in past years, and even with a redesign, I’m sure that both would suit you well… at least for the purposes of an APUSH course.

      Best of luck!

      – David

  • Reply August 17, 2014

    Kevin Van Brimmer


    I was looking through the curriculum framework after reading your article. Towards the end, you said “Teachers will also be responsible for teaching only topics explicitly labeled in the curriculum framework as “essential knowledge.”” I’m looking to zero in on more focused information. When you refer to “essential knowledge”, are you talking about the short descriptors under the Key Concepts? Or are you talking more in the broad Key Concepts? Thanks!

    • Reply August 18, 2014

      David Cutler

      Hi Kevin,

      Any relation to Brimmer and May School, where I teach? Great to hear from you all the same. I use the quotes around “essential knowledge” as a statement, as if I have no idea what the College Board e-mail to me meant by “essential knowledge.” In the email, the College Board also didn’t specify what it meant by “essential questions.” All in all, there are a ton of unanswered questions about the exam, and even more about how to teach the new version of it. Are you a teacher or student? Certainly, e-mail me back if you would like to connect to chat more.


      David Cutler

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    David Cutler


    “Typical?” Clearly, you have some issues to work out. I would have gladly clarified whatever I mistakenly left out.

  • Reply May 12, 2015

    David Nazarian

    Great article, David. As the perfect follow-up to this, check out Mike Henry’s article called “Did the College Board Let APUSH Teachers Down This Year?” The conversation won’t be truly over until the exam has been scored, but it’s interesting to get a “year in review” from one of AP U.S. History’s greatest advocates. Here’s a link to the article:

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