College & Workforce Readiness

Changes Coming to AP U.S. History Exam

By Catherine Gewertz — August 20, 2014 2 min read
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In the recent controversy about the College Board’s new Advanced Placement U.S. History framework, little attention has been paid to corresponding changes in the exam for that course. But one of the designers of the new framework says there will be big changes in the test as well.

In a column for the National Council for History Education, Lawrence Charap, a director of AP curriculum and content development for the College Board, said the number of multiple-choice items will be significantly reduced, and a new section of four short-answer items will be added.

Charap lays out the thinking that put the course and exam changes into motion. An important goal, he writes, was to better align the course—widely known as APUSH—with college survey courses aimed at freshmen. Of particular importance, he says, was to create a course that helped students develop the “historical thinking skills” such as “the use of chronological reasoning or a rigorous use of evidence in making an argument,” that scholars of the discipline view as crucial to mastery of the subject. (More on one example of a curriculum that emphasizes historical thinking here.)

The new APUSH course was designed to free teachers from the mile-wide march through dates and events that so often characterizes history instruction, and instead “define the content conceptually and give teachers the same freedom to explore topics in depth that college professors enjoy,” Charap writes.

In practice, high school teachers, even at the AP level, are often constrained by state standards, curriculum mandates, textbooks, and other issues unique to each school, district, and classroom. However, it is the College Board's hope that the emphasis on teacher flexibility, combined with the stress on thinking historically and the greater clarity about required content in the course as a whole, will substantially ease teachers' and students' ability to experience AP history courses in a meaningful yet rigorous way."

Such an approach to the APUSH course necessitated changes in the corresponding exam. Charap offers a glimpse into the thinking behind those changes. The four new short-answer writing questions are “dedicated explicitly to assessing proficiency in a historical thinking skill,” he writes.

Most significantly, most multiple-choice questions will not ask students to simply recall historical individuals, topics, and events. The questions will instead be organized into sets asking about primary and secondary written texts and other forms of historical evidence (such as charts or maps). These questions will ask students to put these texts into context and make valid connections across time and place, in the way that historians usually reason about unfamiliar historical evidence."

As we have reported to you, the APUSH framework has drawn the ire of conservative activists, who claim it leaves out important parts of the American story and presents a negative view of U.S. history. A member of the Texas state board has been crusading against it, though no action has been taken by that panel. The Colorado Board of Education had been scheduled to consider a resolution opposing the framework at its August meeting, but that item was removed from the board’s agenda, a state department of education spokeswoman said.

A University of Northern Colorado history professor who helped write the state’s social studies standards in 2009 has written a letter to the state board in defense of the new APUSH framework. In his letter, Fritz Fischer, a past board chairman of the National Council for History Education, disputes a claim in the resolution that the new framework conflicts with Colorado’s current social studies standards.

Fischer concedes that he finds the framework a bit long and “occasionally overly prescriptive,” but says it is nonetheless “solid,” and argues that the criticism of it unfair and politically motivated.

The APUSH framework does not, as some critics have asserted, promote a "radically revisionist" view of American history. In adopting this language, the Board would accept the inaccurate criticisms of the AP framework from politically motivated opponents. The APUSH framework does not exclude discussion of the U.S. military; the APUSH framework does not ignore the contributions of the founding era of U.S. history. These are clearly politically motivated misstatements of fact."

Fischer adds that the resolution, as written, “supports the ideas of these anti-historians by demanding that the College Board change its curriculum to suit a particular political viewpoint.”

Earlier this week, the members of the committee that drafted the revised APUSH framework issued a letter defending their work. That prompted conservative critics to respond with a lengthy and detailed rebuttal. It was written by retired AP U.S. History teacher Larry Krieger, who has been a leading voice of criticism of the framework, beginning with a March column for the conservative Heartland Institute.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.