Publication Date

September 26, 2014

“It’s our history, don’t make it mystery!”

According to the Denver Post, this was one of the chants used by hundreds of high school students who walked out of class in protest this week over a series of Jefferson County School Board actions, including a proposal directed at teachers of US history: “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” and should emphasize “positive aspects” of US history.

The backdrop for this proposal is the new AP US History framework and exam. Several groups have denounced the revisions, and Jefferson County School Board member Julie Williams issued a statement that clarified her fears: “”It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American history for generations.”

Long before the eruption of controversy over the College Board’s approach to US AP history, long before the AHA Council’s statement on this issue, we at Perspectives on History were working on an article with Brenda Santos, who taught her first AP US History class in 2000, on what teachers at all levels should know about the new approach.

Back then, before the test became a political lightning rod, the main point of disagreement was between those who favored teaching historical knowledge and those who favored teaching historical thinking skills—a creative tension too often presented as a dichotomy. There’s a lot of common ground in that debate, and teachers usually fall somewhere along a spectrum in their beliefs and practices. Santos herself notes that she tends to fall more on the side of knowledge, but nonetheless asks teachers to embrace the new approach:

I’ve … learned that knowledge without the practice of deep, independent historical analysis is shallow and short-lived. Knowledge is the foundation upon which students practice deep thinking. The new exam is an opportunity to embrace deep thinking in our instruction and to truly prepare our students for college, career, and citizenship.

When the controversy over the AP exam fully erupted, we were already looking at Santos’s article in page proofs. But rather than revise the essay at the last minute, we kept it true to its original purpose. If you’d like to read an authoritative account of what the College Board’s revisions mean to the people who will be working with those revisions, on a daily basis, in your schools and with a group of motivated college-bound students, we highly recommend Santos’s essay in the September issue of Perspectives on History. A selection appears below.

From “Embracing the Challenge of the New AP US History Exam”:

The new exam, which the College Board will administer for the first time in May 2015, will require students to do much more than memorize facts—they will have to interpret primary source documents, analyze historical arguments, evaluate evidence, and read maps and data, even in the (much shorter) multiple-choice section. Indeed, every multiple-choice question now relates to a piece of text, an artifact, a map, or data presented to the student on the exam. The exam also includes more free-response items, including four new short-answer questions. It still includes a document-based essay, but there is now only one long essay (the old exam had two). The changes in the structure of the exam reflect the College Board’s increased prioritization of demonstrated college readiness on the part of AP students.

While there are substantial changes to the structure of the exam, the most important—and consequential—change to the framework (especially to the teacher of AP US history, or APUSH) lies in the organization of the course into three different, intertwined sets of learning objectives: themes, key concepts, and historical thinking skills.Read more…

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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