HM - Sept. 2014 - Nicolosi

Thoughts on APUSH


“Those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it.”

by Phil Nicolosi
West Morris Central High School, West Morris, NJ

It seems that every history teacher across the land has used this justification for studying history to students who seemed “less than thrilled” to be in a history classroom.   Currently, one might apply the same adage to the controversy surrounding the new revamped AP US History test.  As a history teacher for more than two decades, I have found myself being somewhat critical of the traditional APUSH test.  I always saw it as a “gotcha” test – what don’t you know?  Can’t remember the Tariff of 1828?  Gotcha!  I found the multiple-choice questions to be guilty of this particular test-maker philosophy.  While I gritted my teeth and told students that they just had to know stuff, I never found myself short of review materials, flashcards, test banks, sample questions, and study guides to help adequately prepare students to take this test.  However, it was the most motivated of students who went above and beyond to read about, learn and memorize the names dates and facts not covered in class who scored the highest grades on the exam.  While I’d like to think it was the wizardry I performed in front of the class each and every day, students still deserve the credit for going above and beyond in learning the seemingly unlimited content.

Under the new format for the APUSH test, maybe AP did learn from the past. By reducing the weight and number of questions and by changing the type of multiple-choice questions, the new multiple-choice section, in the words of Lawrence Charap, Director of AP Curriculum and Content Development,

“…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.” (History Matters! June, 2014).

It is here that I applaud the AP test makers.  Using multiple-choice questions to test reasoning, thought process, and the evaluation of evidence is an excellent way to see if students are truly “learning” and not “memorizing.”

While the format of the new AP test does increasingly focus on the skills historians employ in their craft, the initial problem of the “gotcha” test does not go away.  I’ve always felt that the beauty of studying history is that it belongs to no one, and each state, district, or individual school may have a particular take on an historical event, period, or person.   Students should be allowed to explore those topics in greater depth without fear of whether it’s in the AP’s new 70 pages of coverage.   The broader 5 or 6 page outline replaced by the new framework allowed teachers from all over the country to fit into the outline their own state or district’s curricular demands.  In trying to please everyone, AP test makers pleased no one. AP claims that they surveyed history teachers and talked to historians to determine what should be in and what should be out.  I know of no history teacher, nor professor who does not have his or her favorite topic, era, or historical figure.  There is no doubt we put our own spin on that topic and get students engaged. Ask 100 different teachers, historians or history buffs, and you’ll get 100 different versions of what should be taught and to what degree.   With the 70 pages of content to be “covered,” AP not only pigeonholed teachers and actually stifled creativity, but they increased the stress of “coverage.”  The “shallow learning” that Mr. Charap addressed in the same History Matters! article will not go away, but rather be exacerbated because of the lack of flexibility. Saying “this is important history and this is not” not only limits teachers and students, but can create the political firestorm that we are witnessing – a debate reminiscent of the failed voluntary curriculum standards of the 1990s.   

Many are calling for the suspension of the test for one year to address these major concerns.  I’m not so sure this is the answer. Someone’s going to have to be the first to take this new test.  My concerns lie not only with teaching this new curriculum in my employing district, but my daughter will be taking this test in our home district this year.  I’m a little concerned for both of us.  While there are some sample questions out there, AP has largely been pretty quiet about sample tests.  Also, the new revamped free response questions will require different grading standards and prep work.  I know my students, my daughter, and I would like to see what an exemplar essay looks like.  I would like to have a lot of sample multiple-choice questions so we could practice over the course of the year.  I would prefer to not have to weed through 70 pages of topics to determine if I’m teaching the “right things” or if our state standards align correctly with AP’s new demands.    I would simply like AP to address a theme or a topic for the DBQ and free response questions. With so much at stake for teachers and students – as many will be evaluated on these scores – it would be wise for AP to give those stakeholders a more specific clue as to what we need to teach and know.