HM - June 2014 - Charap

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement History: A Focus on Historical Thinking Skills
Lawrence Charap,
Director, AP Curriculum and Content Development
The College Board
New York, NY

This fall marks the official launch of a redesigned course in United States History from the Advanced Placement Program of the College Board. Over half a million students a year are expected to experience the revised course, which emphasizes historical inquiry, depth of understanding, and mastery of primary and scholarly sources. In May 2015 these students will take a dramatically changed AP exam that assesses the use of historical thinking skills as applied to the key texts and events of American history. These changes amount to one of the most important initiatives in history education in recent years.

The effort to redesign the three AP History courses – U.S. History, World History, and European History -- began several years ago, with the convening of redesign committees composed of leading historians and high school history educators. These groups were charged with finding a way to address a growing criticism from college professors and AP teachers alike. Because the outlines that governed each AP course simply listed a set of suggested topics that might be encountered in a typical college survey course, teachers had no way of anticipating the specific knowledge that might be assessed on the AP exam. To many critics, the resulting AP courses encouraged shallow learning, as teachers and students raced to cover every possible topic that could appear on the exam.

Because Advanced Placement courses are meant to allow successful students to receive credit and placement from participating universities, any course revisions would have to be agreeable to a variety of history department chairs and faculty. For the AP course to prepare students well for subsequent courses in history, students have to acquire a breadth of knowledge and thinking skills that parallel those found in the freshman college survey course. The challenge is in accounting for the diversity among college-level history survey courses; even within the same institution, survey courses often take on some of the topics, sources, and questions the instructor cares about most. 

Preliminary studies of the state of the survey course in different fields helped to inform the redesign work, as the committees laid out requirements that would help define each course’s content and emphasize conceptual understandings. For example, when the American Historical Association surveyed college faculty on the College Board’s behalf in 2003, it found that 71% of all college survey courses in U.S. history begin with the pre-Columbian period. This reflects the continuing expansion of research on this period and its deep impact on the field of American history. The growth in scholarship on North America prior to European colonization and in the early colonial era led the U.S. History redesign committee to create a separate period on this era in the U.S. history curriculum framework.

Perhaps the most important achievement of the redesign project is the three committees’ agreement on a set of historical thinking skills that AP history courses should emphasize. These skills, such as the use of chronological reasoning or a rigorous use of evidence in making an argument, are similar to the skills stressed by the National Council on History Education as well as major researchers in the field of history teaching and learning. In order to foster these skills, the redesigned courses define the content conceptually and give teachers the same freedom to explore topics in depth that college professors enjoy. The result of this process was the development of a Curriculum Framework for each course laying out a set of course learning objectives as well as key understandings that students should develop about each historical period.

These curricular changes would not have much meaning unless the AP exam changed as well. Question types such as Document-Based Questions and essays, which allow students to develop rigorous historical arguments, have been retained. But the redesign committees agreed that there needed to be new questions that explicitly reflected the emphasis on historical thinking. Four new short-answer writing questions, each dedicated explicitly to assessing proficiency in a historical thinking skill, will now be featured on the exam.

The multiple-choice section of the AP exam will also change dramatically. The weight and number of multiple-choice questions will be lower than on previous exams. 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.

The changes to the AP courses have been strongly endorsed by history faculty in College Board validation studies, and teachers have begun embracing the revised course as well. Thousands of AP teachers will participate in AP Summer Institutes and workshops this coming summer as they prepare to teach the redesigned course. The College Board has developed a new workshop to explicitly help teachers stress the development of historical thinking skills in their students; other support efforts, particularly online, are planned as well.

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.

The Course and Exam Description for the redesigned AP U.S. History course can be found at Lawrence Charap can be reached at