The New AP History: A Preliminary Report

Peter Wood


Sometime during the winter of 2013/2014, the College Board released AP United States History:  Course and Exam Description, Including the Curriculum Framework, Effective Fall 2014—which I will refer to as “APUSH.”  APUSH, the document, represents a complete overhaul of the Advanced Placement course in U.S. History for high school students and the AP U.S. History exam that is keyed to the course.

The changes in the course and in the exam were several years in the making and involved contributions from a thirteen-member “AP U.S. History Redesign Commission” and a nine-member “AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee.” 

Because Advanced Placement courses and exams play a very significant role in American higher education, I decided as president of the National Association of Scholars to take a close look at the new course, exam, and “curriculum framework.”  My colleagues and I at NAS are concerned about the quality of preparation for college that American high school students receive; we are especially concerned about the preparation received by students who attend the nation’s best-regarded colleges and universities; and we have a particular interest in the standards set in the study of U.S. History, which is one of the foundations for American citizenship.  

This “preliminary report” is, as the label indicates, a first step.  The members of the Commission that redesigned AP U.S History and the Committee that developed and assessed the curriculum clearly put a great deal of time and effort into creating this new approach.  I would like to honor their efforts by providing a careful and detailed response.  I have written this preliminary response in first person singular, but I hope to expand it into a larger report that draws on analyses and insights by historians and other scholars who have taken the time to examine the key documents.

The National Association of Scholars and I have been, of course, critical of various steps taken by the College Board in recent years, and we are critical of this initiative with the AP U.S. History course, exam, and curriculum framework as well.  The changes are, in my view, not improvements.  But before turning to what the Commission and the Committee produced, I want to take the time and space to develop some groundwork. 

The College Board

The College Board is a private company founded in 1900 to set standards for college admissions.  The initiative to create the College Board grew out of several decades of growing distress among elite New England preparatory academies and awkwardness among the leading colleges and universities on the question of what college-bound students should learn.  President Charles Eliot at Harvard and President Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia took the lead, and they set a patrician tone.  When the President of Lafayette College objected that he “would not be told by any Board whom to admit and not to admit,” Eliot responded with disdain:

The President of Lafayette College has misunderstood . . . It will be perfectly practicable under this plan for Lafayette College to say, if it chooses, that it will admit only such students as cannot pass these examinations.  No one proposes to deprive Lafayette College of that privilege.” 

The story is recounted in the 1950 official history of the College Board and was retold in Frederick Rudolph’s invaluable 1962 book, The American College and University: A History.[1] 

Those dates are important because they point back to a time when the College Board knew perfectly well what its purpose was.  It was to raise and maintain academic standards.  Compare that to what the College Board today says about itself and its past:

The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity.

Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education.

In its later days, the College Board has decided that its “mission” is not to advance standards but to assist students, and it has gone so far as to project back to 1900 the idea that its role was to “expand access.”  That pretty clearly was not President Eliot’s idea. 

In recent years, the College Board has taken numerous steps, large and small, meant to “expand access,” even if it means lowering standards.  A short list of such steps involving the College Board’s most famous test, the SAT, includes:

  • “Recentering” the scale to boost the scores of mediocre students and crowd the best-performing students into a meaningless corner
  • Allowing students who have learning disabilities to take tests under non-standard conditions and, later, removing from the transcripts any indication of this
  • Abandoning the verbal analogy section of the SATs on the grounds that black students on average performed more poorly on it  
  • Dumbing down the vocabulary on the SAT
  • Removing the penalty for guessing
  • Adding an essay section that was so poorly assessed as to be useless and then, instead of fixing it, abandoning it altogether

I recounted some of this a few months ago when the College Board yet again revised the SAT

But the mischief was never limited to the SATs.  The College Board has been busy for a while compromising the quality of the Advanced Placement tests as well.  And that’s what occasions this short report.

The Fate of History

The College Board recently released its new AP U.S. History (APUSH) Curriculum Framework.[2]  It is, in many respects, a dispiriting document.  A great deal of important U.S. history is given cursory treatment and some ideological themes are sounded rather loudly. 

In view of the many, many faults in American K-12 education, should the College Board’s hapless revision of the Advanced Placement framework in American history occasion special concern?  My answer is a qualified yes.  There are bigger problems, but this is one of those small problems that signifies larger things.  Our national memory is slipping. 

Advanced What?

Advanced Placement courses occupy a significant place in the ecology of American education.  They are high school courses, each one of which is, as the College Board puts it, “modeled upon a comparable college course.”  Many colleges award academic credit for doing well on an AP exam and allow students to skip over the “comparable” introductory courses.  A few colleges don’t award academic credit for AP courses but still allow students who scored well on the exams to “place out” of the comparable courses.

Today, more than a quarter (25.8 percent) of American high school students take AP courses.   In 2013, 852,782 high school seniors took at least one AP course, out of the roughly 3.3 million who graduated.  That quarter of the graduating class that took AP courses, however, isn’t the whole story.  The figure contains within it a smaller subset—perhaps about 400,000 students—whose skills roughly match the ostensible level of the courses, and a still smaller subset who are truly talented.

In this sense AP courses account for many of the brightest and most intellectually ambitious members of their age cohort.  These are the students who matriculate to the best colleges and will eventually comprise a hugely disproportionate share of the leadership class of their generation.  But we can’t get very far in discussing the AP system without first acknowledging that these top students are mixed in with others.  This is a relatively new development.

In recent years, a movement has arisen—encouraged by the College Board and the U.S. Secretary of Education—to open AP courses to all students, regardless of talent. 

The College Board’s eagerness to turn “advanced placement” into a trophies-for-everyone enterprise might have something to do with the revision of the U.S. AP History Curriculum, but that remains to be seen.  The ostensible reasons for opening the AP to all are to encourage poor and minority students to reach higher and to close the “achievement gap.”  The initiative has succeeded in the last ten years at more than doubling the number of students who take at least one AP course (up to 2.1 million in 2012).  Because some students take exams in multiple subjects, the number of AP exams taken has also soared, from 1.2 million in 2002 to 2.9 million in 2012. 

Passing, Failing, Excelling

The increase in course enrollments and exam-takers, however, has not resulted in spectacular success on the examinations.  Some 1.3 million of 2.9 million exam-takers in 2012 failed (by scoring below a “3” on the five point scale).  The general pass rate on exams fell from 61 percent in 2002 to 57 percent in 2012. 

These numbers become more illuminating when we look at the details.  The rate of students who “pass” the exams varies from about 55 to 70 percent by subject, with some outliers, such as Advanced Placement Chinese, where more than 94 percent of the exam takers received a 3 or better in 2014.  In Computer Science, the figure was 67.6 percent; Calculus AB, 57.7 percent; English Literature and Composition, 56.0 percent; and U.S. History, 52.5 percent. 

So a lot of the less talented students who have flooded into the AP courses do not end up either winning college credit or placing out of required courses.  Most of those who fail the AP exams probably pass the high school course, so one possible response is, “Why does it matter?”  It matters for at least two reasons.  The AP courses themselves are inevitably diluted by the presence of many students—roughly half the class—who are not suited for an advanced course.  And, the enrollment of underqualified students in these classes is a near-perfect example of the “mismatch” problem, i.e. it robs the mis-assigned students of their opportunity to do well (and learn more) in courses matched to their own level. 

It bears mention as well that the rates at which students receive the top marks on the exam (a “5” which the College Board translates as “extremely well qualified”) vary significantly by subject. In Chinese language, 68.1 percent of test takers in 2014 received a 5, and 48.3 percent in Calculus BC.   But only 7.7 percent of test takers in English Literature and Composition were rated 5; 6.5 percent in Biology; 8.2 percent in Environmental Science; 8.6 percent in European History; and 11.0 percent in U.S. History.  Do the tests vary that much in rigor?  Or do these discrepancies reflect differences in the cohorts of students who sit for the examinations?  At a guess, I’d say the percentages say something about self-selection.

It is a good idea to keep these figures in mind for when we turn to the new U.S. History exam.  The College Board cannot be happy that its experiment in AP-for-everyone is producing such doubtful results.  It may well be looking to the new changes in the examinations themselves to generate a different picture.  There are some other clues that point in this direction.

As for the next AP U.S. History exam, it is three hours and fifteen minutes long, divided between a 100-minute multiple-choice/short answer section and a 95-minute “free-response” section.  The free-response section is divided between a section where the test-taker reads some documents and composes an essay that draws on them, and a “long essay” based on either of two questions provided by the exam. 

In 2013, the AP U.S. History Exam was offered in 12,176 schools, mostly for 11th graders, and 370,643 juniors took it.  It was also taken by 1,899 9th graders; 46,883 10th graders; 16,523 12th graders; 89 homeschoolers; 16 exceptionally precocious children not yet in 9th grade; and 6,837 others—a total of 442,890 test-takers.

Opting Out

In 2012, the faculty of Dartmouth College voted to eliminate the practice of awarding academic credit for high performance on the AP exam, though it would still use the exams for “course placement for incoming students.”  Dartmouth’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences explained, diplomatically, that the change was rooted in the belief that Dartmouth students would benefit from taking “full advantage of the faculty expertise and the unique academic resources” of the college.  In other words: no disrespect for the College Board intended, but Dartmouth courses are better than AP exams. 

Some Dartmouth faculty were more plainspoken.  Haken Tell, professor of classics, was quoted in the Huffington Post, “The concern that we have is that increasingly, AP has been seen as equivalent to a college-level course, and it really isn't, in our opinion.”

The Dartmouth decision occasioned a lot of commentary in the academic press.  Princeton and Columbia both allow students to receive academic credit for AP courses, but at least at Princeton, few students avail themselves of the option.  After all, why should anyone who attends Princeton be in a haste to finish up on the basis of intellectually discounted courses? 

But there are a great many other colleges and universities where the tuition is sky high and the intellectual quality of the curriculum isn’t.  In those cases, the chance of shaving off a semester on the way to graduation is pretty attractive.  And Advanced Placement courses are a key part of that strategy. 

The Bowdoin Syndrome

But there is more to the matter than just economizing on tuition.  The idea of “placing out” of courses depends on a certain chain of logic.  First, it assumes that the core knowledge and the requisite skills in a subject are sufficiently well established that they can be captured on a single, nationally standardized exam.  This seems highly plausible in some subjects, such as calculus, but rather less plausible in subjects such as history, where introductory courses can vary dramatically on matters such as their emphasis on the American Founding or the degree to which they emphasize Native Americans or women. 

In 2011, when Tom Klingenstein and I visited Bowdoin College on an invitation from a student organization, we pointed out to a large group of students the fragmentary quality of the history curriculum.  A student in the audience schooled us to the effect that Bowdoin students—all of them— had no need for a survey course in American history because they had had all that in their AP history courses in high school.  He offered himself as proof of principle:  “Ask me any question.  I’ll ace it.” 

Perhaps he meant, “Ask me any question that might appear on the AP U.S. History examination, and I’ll ace it.”  But surely we could have asked myriad questions to which he would have had no clue. 

His declaration, however, played a significant role in prompting me to launch the study that became What Does Bowdoin Teach?  What we saw at Bowdoin was a kind of intellectual arrogance, an unearned and undeserved assumption of omni-competence, fostered by the college itself but also fed to a considerable degree by the AP courses and examination system, which encouraged students who had a superficial understanding of a subject to think they had mastered the whole and were ready to specialize.

The New, New, New U.S. AP History

AP courses undergo frequent revision.  The newest revision, however, is radical.  The College Board has thrown away its old five-page topical outline for the course and replaced it with an 80-page analytic exposition of the course and a 40-page exposition of the exam with each question keyed to “learning objectives,” “historical thinking skills,” and “key concepts” in the course.  Lack of thoroughness is not among its faults.

Jane Robbins (senior fellow at the American Principles Project) and Larry Krieger (a retired AP U.S. history teacher) have emerged as the leading critics of the new U.S. history course.  In March they posted an article, “New Advanced Placement Framework Distorts America’s History,” and Krieger followed up in April with a reply to a defender of the new curriculum in, “Yes, the New AP Framework Does Distort U.S. History.”  Robbins and Krieger’s analyses are concise and compelling—and have been, of course, either brushed off or ignored by the education establishment. 

I don’t want to take up much space recapitulating their points, since I have more of my own and their articles are easily accessible.  But in brief compass, Robbins and Krieger:

  • Note that the College Board is, effectively, substituting a detailed course design for the broad framework it used to provide.  The new plan is still presented as a “framework” the way the Common Core is presented as “standards,” but in both cases the label is hollow.  The College Board is becoming a “de facto legislature for the nation’s public and private high schools.”
  • Argue that the new framework relentlessly advances a negative view of America.  It dwells, for example, on the “rigid racial hierarchy” of colonial times and “ignores the United States’ founding principles.”   The Declaration of Independence gets short shrift.
  • Observe that the Framework erases major figures from U.S. history, including Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and drastically minimizes others, such as George Washington, who is glimpsed only in a passing mention of his Farewell Address.

Elsewhere, Krieger describes the APUSH as “an imposition” of a “biased interpretation of American history upon the states and local school districts.”  Technically, the schools are free to teach AP U.S. history any way they want, but the reality is that the schools must prepare the students who take the AP courses for the AP exams, which are completely under the control of the College Board.  Thus the 120-page APUSH framework will determine what is actually taught.


How bad is it really?  The College Board explains that it is “modelled on a comparable college course.”  Having systematically examined 85 entry-level U.S. history courses at two major public universities as part of the National Association of Scholars’ 2013 study, Recasting History, I don’t find that assurance all that reassuring.  American history as it is currently taught in many colleges and universities has been twisted perhaps more than other parts of the college curriculum into a platform for political advocacy and for animus against traditional American values.  When the College Board announces that it intends to make the AP course in U.S. history match what colleges do, I wonder, “Which course?”  Consider the survey course at California State University at Fullerton, “Survey of American History with Emphasis on Ethnic Minorities.” Or “Making ‘Others’ Into Us: Bridging Cultures in the U.S. History Survey” at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. 

The College Board’s own explanation of what it has done bears close attention.  The new course

focuses on the development of historical thinking skills (chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narrative) and an understanding of content learning objectives organized around seven themes, such as identity, peopling, and America in the world.  In line with college and university U.S. history survey courses’ increased focus on early and recent American history and decreased emphasis on other areas, the AP U.S. History course expands on the history of the Americas from 1491 to 1607 and from 1980 to the present. It also allows teachers flexibility across nine different periods of U.S. history to teach topics of their choice in depth.

That’s a lot to swallow in one gulp, so let’s take it in sips.  A few pages later in the document, the writers explain, “the course is designed to encourage students to become apprentice historians.” Later still, the course is said to be part of an effort “to apprentice students to the practice of history by explicitly stressing the development of historical thinking skills while learning about the past.” 

That nails it.  The new AP U.S. History courses focus on “historical thinking skills” aims at turning high school students into “apprentice historians.”  That is no doubt flattering in a Bowdoin Syndrome manner.  It tells the students they are no longer merely students striving to get a foundation in facts and understanding, but rather young professionals in a learned academic discipline ready to develop their command of sophisticated analytic and synthetic skills. 

This very much falls within the zone of contemporary education where colleges and universities—and schools—trip over themselves to assure students that they possess such insight and blazing intelligence that they can skip the learn-how-to-swim courses and go straight to the Olympic relay team.

To be sure, really bright high school students should indeed begin to work on chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narrative.  But they aren’t going to get very far on these sophisticated skills if they are not also acquiring a well-landscaped understanding of the big picture, a richly detailed recall of historical sequence, and a genuine familiarity with key people and key documents.  These are what the new AP U.S. History framework plays down.  The mentality seems to be, ‘if it is something the student can look up, we need not expect him to learn it.’ 

Our apprentice historians will be like theoretical blacksmiths who could explain at length the thermodynamic properties of hammered iron but who could not be trusted to find the front end of a horse.

The College Board’s statement mentions three of seven “themes” in the course.  Interestingly, all three— identity, peopling, and America in the world—come out of the identity studies side of contemporary history.  The full list of seven themes is:

  1. Identity
  2. Work, exchange, and technology
  3. Peopling
  4. Politics and power
  5. America in the world
  6. Environment and geography—physical and human
  7. Ideas, beliefs, and culture

These are sufficiently broad as to allow an inventive teacher to insert almost anything, but the list is not especially hospitable to teaching about military history, Constitutional history, or religious history.  These can be shoehorned into “Politics and power” and “Ideas, beliefs, and culture,” but if that’s the approach, they appear as sidelights to the real story.  In this, Robbins and Krieger have caught the spirit of the thing.  APUSH shoves a lot of important American history into the shadows.

Then we have the increased emphasis on pre-colonial America and America since 1980, and the diminished attention to everything in between.  The actual increases and decreases aren’t that large.  Five percent of the course is now supposed to deal with America before Jamestown, and five percent after Jimmy Carter.  But the change signals something larger than that.  While 90 percent of American history in the AP course runs from 1607 to 1980, the “before” and “after” loom very large. 

Before Jamestown

Period I in the APUSH curriculum is from 1491 to 1607 and focuses on “native populations in North America” as well as “contact among the peoples of Europe, the Americas, and West Africa.” This is a topic that I have considerable interest in as an anthropologist, and I was eager to see what the College Board made of it.  The answer is disappointing. The curriculum deals with the Native American populations almost exclusively through their modes of production and their adaptations to “diverse environments.” The spread of “maize cultivation” from Mexico northward is the lead idea. And the occupation of the Great Basin and western Great Plains is plainly misrepresented:

Societies responded to the lack of natural resources in the Great Basin and the western Great Plains by developing largely mobile lifestyles.

These are areas that had abundant natural resources that peoples such as the Shoshone were able to exploit for hundreds of years in a highly successful adaptation. But APUSH favors the story of native societies that developed “permanent villages.”  

The story embedded in APUSH is the familiar one of materialist social progress. It moves from the aboriginal situation to the “Columbian Exchange,” i.e. the account of how Europeans introduced deadly epidemics, slavery, and plantations, and extracted natural resources, while native peoples struggled to hold on. 

The real history is a lot more complicated than that. Native peoples had been engaged in perpetual warfare with one another, including conquest and genocide, for thousands of years; had developed complex long-distance trade and alliances; had absorbed Western-introductions such as horses; had built complexly different and contrasting social systems; had made their own (often highly destructive) mark on the natural world; and were culturally diverse.  To ask high school students to wade into this asks a lot. But APUSH doesn’t try. Instead, it offers the baseline for American history as a continent of thriving, autonomous, civilized, ecologically well-adapted American Indian communities suddenly confronted with the crisis of European conquest. 

The conquest was certainly real and it is a history worth knowing, but if U.S. history is to begin with native North America, we need something more tough-minded than this “ecological Indian” story.

After Carter

Period 9 in the APUSH curriculum is 1980 to the present.  It focuses on “challenges and possibilities,” “renewed ideological and cultural debates,” and “economic globalization and revolutionary changes in science and technology.”  Those terms add up to a characterization so devoid of specific content that they could apply to many other eras in American history. The Panama Canal and the invention of controlled flight, for example, occurred in an era of “renewed ideological and cultural debate.”  Thus from the outset there is something suspect about this “periodization” of the present. 

The first of the three “key concepts” it introduces for this period is, “A new conservatism grew to prominence in U.S. culture and politics.”  This new conservatism includes “the rapid and substantial growth of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches.” The second key concept is “the end of the Cold War.”  The third and final key concept is “challenges” in the 21st century “stemming from social, economic, and demographic changes.”  Within that category the key themes are “economic inequality,” “debates over free trade agreements,” conflicts in the Middle East, and the “spread of computer technology.”

The selection of these three key concepts and subsidiary themes for “Period 9” (the last 34 years) is odd.  Any effort to distill to a handful of points the rush of contemporary and near-contemporary events is, of course, fraught with difficulty. But where some see the rise of “a new conservatism in U.S. culture and politics,” others with equal justification see the rise of an aggressive new progressivism in U.S. culture and politics. Where APUSH sees “the rapid and substantial growth of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches,” others with equal justification see the rapid and substantial growth of multiculturalism and secularist ideologies such as diversity, feminism, sustainability, and gay rights. 

Where APUSH sees a key concept in “the end of the Cold War and new challenges to U.S. leadership in the world,” others with equal justification see the liberation of Europe from a tyranny rooted in the outcome of World War II and the final discrediting of communist ideology.  Where APUSH emphasizes President Ronald Reagan’s “friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev” and “significant arms reductions by both countries” as the hallmark of President Reagan’s foreign policy, others with equal justification see President Reagan’s commitment to a nuclear deterrent in the face of the Soviet-sponsored “nuclear freeze” movement and his advancement of the “Star Wars” nuclear defense initiative as turning the tide against the Soviets. 

Where APUSH sees “the increasing integration of the United States into the world economy,” others with equal justification see the United States as increasingly dependent on China and vulnerable to other trade blocs such as the European Union.  Where APUSH sees “concerns about climate change” leading to “debates over U.S. dependence on fossil fuels,” others see the dawn of American energy independence based on extraction of oil and gas from shale. 

Where APUSH sees “new migrants” supplying “the economy with an important labor force,” others with equal justification see the rapid growth of a population that displaces native-born workers from low-wage jobs and who are also heavily dependent on public services and transfer payments. 

In sum, almost every item in the APUSH picture of recent history seems to argue for one side of a dispute.  It is, of course, possible that teachers of AP courses will themselves recognize that one-sidedness and attempt to correct it.  But the AP U.S. History exam will be keyed to the College Board’s agenda, not whatever corrective lens teachers may provide.

The Main Story: 1607-1979

APUSH devotes nine-tenths of the course to the period from the founding of Jamestown to the end President Jimmy Carter’s administration.  Much of it is accurately characterized by Robbins and Krieger: it seems written in a spirit of animus against the West and America in particular. There are few overt inaccuracies, but many omissions of ideas, people, events, and larger patterns that would seem to have an important claim on the attention of students taking a college-level survey course on American history. The claims that are put forward are often tendentious.

For example:

Period 2:  1607-1754, Key Concept 2.1 (“Differences in imperial goals, cultures, and the North American environments [led to] diverse patterns of colonization”) includes as a subtopic:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontation with native peoples.

This is a collage of points each of which has some historical warrant but which form a suspect whole.  Any system of slavery presupposes the superiority of the masters, and likewise alters the “gender and kinship relationships” of the slaves.  There seems nothing distinctive about British slavery of Africans other than the soon-to-follow decision of Britain to end the trade and, later, abolish slavery itself.  How much African slavery affected relations between colonists and aboriginal peoples is far from clear.

The omissions pile up.  During and after the Revolution, opposition to slavery arises from “an increased awareness of the inequalities in society” (Key Concept 3.2), but APUSH makes no mention of the religious basis of the growing call for abolition. 

Anachronisms appear, as when we learn that in the first half of the 19th century, “U.S. policymakers” were “struggling to create an independent global presence” (Key Concept 4.3). The young republic was certainly engaged in international trade and in high seas ventures such as whaling, but “global presence” is a term and an idea for a different age.

Sometimes APUSH slips all the way over to ideological cant.  In a section on the Great Depression (Key Concept 7.2) we learn:

Although the New Deal did not completely overcome the Depression, it left a legacy of reforms and agencies that endeavored to make society and individuals more secure, and it helped foster a long-term political realignment in which many ethnic groups, African Americans, and working-class communities identified with the Democratic Party.

This sounds like the voice of the Democratic Party itself.  It simply sets aside the numerous economists who argue that the New Deal prolonged and deepened the Depression and that its legacy of “reforms” fostered patterns of dependency and the arrogation of extra-Constitutional powers to the federal government. 

The broader problem in APUSH is not that it presents progressive readings of American history but that it presents such readings as settled and undisputed.  For a history course that is premised on fostering “historical thinking skills”—let’s remember:  chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narrative—the lack of attention to well-grounded scholarship that presents different interpretations of U.S. history is remarkable. 

APUSH often seems to be pushing something, and it is not critical, historical thinking.  It is a worldview that emphasizes America as a place of European conquest, economic exploitation, and the struggle for basic rights against the power of the privileged.  Sometimes these concerns break out into overt emphasis but they are present throughout.

Putting It to the Test

The example questions for the new AP U.S. History exam comprise a 40-page section of the “Course and Exam Description.” They are illuminating. The section begins with 19 multiple choice questions.

Question 1 emphasizes England’s mercantilist goals for its North American colonies. Question 2 connects the colonies’ efforts to oppose mercantilism to the American independence movement.  Question 3 compares English mercantilism to American protectionism in the 1820s. 

Questions 4, 5, and 6 deal with an excerpt from a letter by the slave-holding former governor of South Carolina and a speech by Frederick Douglass. The three questions are quite simple.  Question 4 expects the student to recognize the slave owner’s moral self-justification.  Question 5 expects the student to recognize that Frederick Douglass’ ideas would appeal to Northern abolitionists. Question 6 expects students to see the influence of the Second Great Awakening on the rhetoric of both the slave owner and Douglass. 

Questions 7 and 8 deal with the slave trade. Questions 9, 10, and 11 deal with women’s activism and the rise of the progressive movement. Questions 12, 13, 14, and 15 deal with the post-World War II economic boom. Question 13 emphasizes the rise of the Sun Belt. Question 14 deals with the persistence of poverty despite “overall affluence.” 

Questions 16, 17, 18, and 19 deal with grassroots resistance to mortgage foreclosures on farmers in the 1890s. 

So, all 19 of the sample questions deal with economic history (slavery and progressivism are clearly more than that but they are that too), and also with economic grievance.  

The next section offers four examples of “short answer” questions, each of which has three parts.  Question 1 deals with contact between Native Americans and Europeans. Part A asks for an example of how such contact brought changes to a Native American society between 1492 and 1700; Part B asks for another example; and Part C asks for an example of Native American resistance. Question 2 asks about the sectional crisis in the prelude to the Civil War.  Question 3 presents an 1883 cartoon showing robber barons lounging on the backs of workers and asks the student about the cartoonist’s view of the economy.  Question 4 asks the student to evaluate two contrasting views of Progressive era reformers, one which emphasizes the reformers’ middle class values and the other the reformers’ new “awareness of class-based injustices.”

The next section is a “document-based” essay, with seven documents provided.  The question is:

Analyze major changes and continuities in the social and economic experiences of African Americans who migrated from the rural South to urban areas in the North in the period 1910-1930.

The final section of the exam is the long essay in which the student must choose between two questions.  The two sample questions are:

  1. Some historians have argued that the American Revolution was not revolutionary in nature.  Support, modify, or refute this interpretation, providing specific evidence to justify your answer.
  2. Some historians have argued that the New Deal was ultimately conservative in nature.  Support, modify, or refute this interpretation, providing specific evidence to justify your answer.
Time’s Up

If we had to infer the course from the questions on the final exam, it would be pretty clear that the College Board has turned AP U.S. History into a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past.  It is something that weaves together a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity group grievances. 

Which is not to say that a student who studied this material wouldn’t learn any American history.  Such a student would indeed learn quite a bit about broad-stroke economic developments, class envy, racial struggle, women’s rights, and the rise of the Progressive movement.  These are all worth knowing about.  But an AP history course that is routed towards these destinations does a serious disservice to the subject. 

Robbins and Krieger justly complain that “the new framework relentlessly advances a negative view of America,” dwells on the “rigid racial hierarchy” of colonial times, and “ignores the United States’ founding principles.”   They complain as well that it erases major figures from U.S. history, including Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and drastically minimizes others, such as George Washington.  They are right on all these points, but I think there is a little more to be said.

Practically speaking, the AP U.S. History course will be the last time many of our nation’s best and brightest students will study American history in a broad survey.  Survey courses in history are already an endangered species.  Bowdoin College has done away with them as have many of the other elite institutions to which AP students seek admission.  And even where these survey courses are still offered, the students, like the ones I met at Bowdoin in 2011, see themselves as having “done that.”  They have “placed out” of U.S. History as a broad topic, and if they choose to visit it again, they will take one or more of the boutique “topics” courses that are proliferating at elite colleges, e.g. “Women on the Home Front,” Bowdoin’s only course on World War II.

The graduates of our “best” liberal arts colleges typically face no general education requirements that include the study of American history.  If they have taken AP U.S. History in high school, that will be their baseline knowledge for the rest of their lives.  Their baseline will include a thorough-going appreciation of how rapacious the European explorers and colonists were; how valiant the Native Americans were in their doomed resistance to the new exploitation; how the colonists ginned up the African slave trade when they found Native Americans unsuitable chattel; and so on. 

The level of grievance that is filtered into the AP course is remarkable. I thought I was pretty well-read in the anthropology of native North America, but until reading the AP U.S. History curriculum I hadn’t run across the idea that “Domestic animals brought by Europeans changed the environment and destroyed Native American crops.”  I haven’t completely figured this out yet, but I’ve found an “Encounter and Explorers” flash-card website that helpfully explains that Hernando de Soto brought pigs with him on his trip to the Mississippi in 1541, and his pigs “spread disease and destroyed Native American crops far inland.”

The intellectually ambitious students taking the AP U.S. History course need not trouble themselves with who Ben Franklin was, but they will know for sure that the injuries suffered by Native Americans at the hands of Europeans included wild pigs rooting up their gardens.

The politicization of American higher education has continued unabated for the last forty years or so.  When the College Board says it is modifying AP U.S. History to make it like a “comparable college course,” I regret to say that that is probably true. 

We have alternatives of course.  If someone wants to study American history in fuller form and in less biased renditions, we have libraries full of books to read, and works by some excellent contemporary scholars to plumb.  All is not lost.  Yet for the coming generation of students headed into our best colleges and then out into positions of leadership in our society, a great deal is at risk.  They are smart but ignorant, and their ignorance is of that proud form:  “Ask me anything, and I’ll ace it.” 

What’s Next?

This essay is, as it announced itself, a preliminary report.  More needs to be done to assess the intellectual quality of APUSH.  The effort to make that assessment will itself help to clarify the standards that ought to apply to the teaching of American history in advanced high school courses and in colleges.

One preliminary verdict:  it may be time to start thinking beyond the College Board as a fair-minded and independent arbiter of academic standards.  If we are to judge by APUSH, the College Board has relinquished that role in favor of two others:  the effort to be more “inclusive” at the expense of academic standards, and the effort to promote progressive political ideology.

Perhaps I am mistaken on these points and my mistakes will be corrected by further examination of APUSH by other scholars.  There are also some fairly simple steps towards a deeper analysis of APUSH that I have not yet undertaken.  One of those steps, for example, is to examine the work of the 22 scholars and teachers who worked on APUSH.                                                                                                                                                               

Image: Public Domain

[1] Claude M. Fuess.  The College Board:  Its First Fifty Years.  New York:  The College Entrance Examination Board.  1950.  Pp. 23-24.

Frederick Rudolph.  The American College and University:  A History.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.  1962. Pp. 436-438.

[2] I’ve been unable to determine the official date of release.  Drafts of the document appear to have been in wide circulation during the winter of 2013/2014.  As far as I can tell the final published draft is undated and the College Board did not issue a press release.  In any case, the document was clearly available to the general public by January 17, 2014, when it was linked on a College Board website,

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