The new AP US History test guide: Standards-lite, thematic guide, or not quite either?

In creating a new Course and Exam Description for the revamped Advanced Placement US History test (coming in the 2014–15 academic year), the College Board’s writers faced a notable challenge. On the one hand, any such guide must seek to specify essential knowledge and concepts that will be covered on the AP exam. On the other, it needs to be compatible with any and all state standards (from the ludicrously vague to the solidly specific), any local guidelines, and teachers’ own individual plans. The College Board explicitly denies any intention of imposing detailed course standards or curricula. Yet the AP exam is uniform across the nation and must judge all students against a single assessment standard; the Board must, therefore, lay out the core material for which all tested students are responsible. Such a document straddles a difficult line: specifying core content without dictating curricula.

How do you help teachers prepare students for the AP exam, while recognizing that you can’t specify curriculum in the process and that the very best teachers, the ones you most want teaching AP classes, do not want to be told exactly what to teach? The key mission of the document is to make clear to such teachers what areas may appear on the test, coordinating a single national exam with variable state standards and myriad individual classes. But how do you lay out the areas for which students will be responsible without laying out the key specifics that such questions may depend upon? And how far can you lay out specifics without creating a set of overly prescriptive standards, intruding upon state documents and teacher autonomy?

There are no simple answers, and no solution will satisfy everyone: the new guide represents the College Board’s latest attempt to address these longstanding challenges. Still, since the new document is meant as a guide to concepts that may be tested—and intended to be compatible with any course outline—a broad focus on themes and issues seems appropriate (far more so than in state standards, which, to be effective, must lay out core specific knowledge). But where the new document offers specific “illustrative examples,” does it do so in a way that is useful or does it go too far to maintain a broad focus, while offering only scattered and patchy examples?

This document seems to have come down in a sort of no-man’s-land—not quite standards, not quite a testing guide, definitely not a full-fledged curriculum guide, and arguably too long and complex to be used easily alongside state-mandated and local materials.

The concluding section, which lays out sample questions and a sample test format (pp. 81–124), is of obvious use and importance and is, one suspects, the part that teachers will most rely upon. It is in the “curriculum framework” (pp. 9–80) that potential problems arise. The framework’s opening unit, on “historical thinking skills” (pp. 11–19), is a straightforward and useful overview of basic analytical concepts. The following section, on overarching “thematic learning objectives” (pp. 20–27), is more problematic, with issues and subjects sometimes arbitrarily divided between the various thematic headings. Still, the analytical questions, though extremely broad, are generally sensible; teachers may well find them helpful, especially in preparing students to answer the exam’s essay questions.

The main section of the curriculum framework, the “concept outline” (pp. 28–80), certainly reads like a standards document, even though it isn’t meant to be one. Assertions that “teachers have the flexibility to use” the various but sparse examples seem to suggest that the document is dictating core course content as standards must do—yet those examples are so spotty that they don't do the job. The College Board rightly points out that this document will be used in conjunction with local curricula and detailed textbooks, which will supply the specifics to match the guide’s concept headings…in which case, why include such erratic examples at all?

Many of the concept outline’s broad headings, laying out key issues in the various historical periods, are intelligent and substantively solid. The recognition of the British colonies’ increasing Anglicization in the eighteenth century, for instance, is both unusual and welcome. A strong item on the ideas behind early state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation touches on key but often-neglected points. Yet such headings could arguably be more useful as a guide to exam coverage without the patchy, inconsistent, and visually intrusive optional examples. There are also odd gaps. Why, for instance, refer specifically to Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address but not directly invoke the crucial role of his administration in shaping the new American government? Some key political ideas, such as why Americans rejected Parliamentary taxation, are skimped.

Unfortunately, the content headings’ strengths are also undermined by an ideological lean (though hardly the leftist “indoctrination” charged by some critics). For example, one item, citing “a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,” attributes perpetual enslavement of blacks to “the British system.” Not only does this push modern conceptions of racial prejudice into a very different seventeenth-century mindset, but it also creates the misleading impression that slavery was a uniquely British invention, rather than a tragic reality throughout human history. One would certainly not get any sense of slavery’s long history in Africa or in Native American cultures; the critical role of African states in supplying and facilitating the Atlantic slave trade—only mentioned obliquely—is afforded far less emphasis, as is the heavy reliance of other colonial empires (such as Portugal and France) on African slaves in Brazil and the Caribbean. Other empires are indeed held up as models of comparative tolerance of Africans and Indians in contrast to the British—a valid point for, say, French-Indian relations in Canada but rather strained as a generalization. There is also little suggestion that Native American cultures were themselves in frequent conflict with each other.

Throughout, the headings stress the exploitation and plight of America’s marginalized and disadvantaged. This is not in itself inappropriate, but there is markedly less emphasis on the more positive (and, historically, far more unusual and remarkable) achievements that counterbalance the indisputable negatives in the American story: the rise of early America’s unique self-governing institutions, the expansion of democratic participation, the spread of economic opportunity, the constant struggle to expand rights and freedoms to new groups—all are given comparatively short shrift.

It should be noted, however, that the document’s harsher critics bring their own ideological baggage. They have certainly hit upon problematic examples: one heading, plainly prodding students to condemn the use of the atomic bomb as a violation of American values, has for instance been properly flagged. Yet such critics clearly wish to substitute their own ideological agenda, as Texas did in its much-criticized 2010 standards, minimizing unwelcome realities in America's past in order to push a triumphal narrative of exceptionalist glories: an ironic mirror image of the “politically correct” mentality they deplore. With absurd excess, some are even pushing the link to David Coleman (now president of the College Board and formerly key in shaping the CCSS), darkly hinting that the new guide is a back-door plot to impose Common Core history standards on the states. Quite apart from the dubious claim that the CCSS was itself “imposed,” the charge doesn’t add up: as the College Board itself has pointed out, few students, in relative terms, even take the AP course—and the new document was, in any event, prepared before Coleman joined the Board.

All in all, the new guide has potential. Yet it can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to be: standards-lite, a thematic guide to exam content, or something in between. The sometimes-unwieldy result is likely to be difficult for teachers to use. Teachers in states or districts with strong expectations will, I expect, often find it an awkward fifth wheel; teachers saddled with inadequate state standards or local curricula may be tempted to use it as a course outline—a role for which it is neither intended nor suited. A less standards-like presentation would help avoid confusion. On the whole, a shorter, simpler, more user-friendly, and more ideologically neutral document—more tightly focused on the broad concepts to be invoked by the exam—might better serve the College Board’s own aims, not to mention the preferences of American teachers and the educational needs of their pupils.

Jeremy Stern is an independent historian and history education consultant. He coauthored the Fordham report The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011.