HM - Sept. 2015 - Dickson

Issues in History

Redesigning AP US History – Again!

Ted Dickson
nce Day School
Charlotte, NC
NCHE Gagnon Award Winner



I was involved with redesigning the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course for the entire process – which took ten years (2006-2015).  This was an exciting, stimulating, labor-intensive process.  In these ten years, I was fortunate to work with many amazing people and to develop strong professional relationships.  
The College Board initiated the course redesign process in 2006 primarily because many AP teachers expressed frustration that the previous course did not provide sufficient time to immerse students in the major ideas, events, people, and documents of U.S. history, and that they were instead required to race through topics. The Acorn book that was intended to provide direction to teachers contained a generic topic outline and a list of many possible themes (without explanation).  As a result, teachers took their direction from the released exams, which often had at least one topic that seemed obscure (and that I had never taught!).  Teachers came to believe that they had to teach every detail in U.S. history.  Therefore, our key initial goal was somewhat paradoxical – to give teachers more freedom by more clearly defining what should be taught and what would be assessed – limiting breadth to allow for in-depth analysis.  As the process evolved, we also decided to more clearly define the historical thinking skills across the AP histories and to redesign the exam to reflect both our goals and current research on assessment.

I have always enjoyed teaching U.S. history and shared some of the concern about the “old” course, yet I had still found ways to go into depth in some places despite the tyranny of content.  As I participated in the redesign process, I began to revise my teaching strategies to reflect the changes we were developing, such as becoming more explicit in my teaching of historical thinking skills and giving the students the opportunity to explore documents in more depth.

This redesign process was very democratic.  This was very appropriate for this course, which is so intertwined with our national identity.  Teachers, college professors, educational professionals, professional organizations, and other commentators all had the opportunity to provide input.  Democratic processes are inherently messy and complicated because of the multiplicity of voices, and documents produced by a committee seldom read as well as single-author texts – but our final 2015 version overcomes this obstacle and reads well. 


The framework we produced and implemented in the fall of 2014 was dramatically different from the old AP US History course, and it required changes in assessment, instructional resources, and classroom teaching.  The new Curriculum Framework detailed every topic that teachers needed to teach (presented at a conceptual level) and identified seven key themes that teachers had to address.  The new AP US History exam had multiple-choice questions in sets based on stimuli and a new item type, short-answer questions, while retaining one long essay and the document-based essay from the old format.  Perhaps the best change was a clear delineation of historical thinking skills to be taught in all three AP history classes.  Overall, teachers were very happy with the new course and found that they had both a clearer idea of what to teach AND the opportunity to go delve into topics and skills (such as document analysis) in more depth allowing the students to develop critical thinking skills beyond just memorization.  This new course culminated with the AP Reading and Standards Setting process in June, both of which were very successful.  I was proud of the new course and enjoyed teaching it, but at the same time I was aware of the public criticism of the new course.


The 2014 Course and Exam Description (a.k.a. Curriculum Framework) sparked significant public discussions among students, educators, historians, policymakers, and others about the teaching of U.S. history and became the object of a variety of criticisms (some of which got quite personal).  This was somewhat disconcerting because a number of critics misunderstood the framework (and the point of not listing every person or term), and our intent had been to create a course that reflected (and shaped) the best history instruction.  We made a conscious decision to write the framework at a conceptual level, only including a few specific people and terms so that teachers would have the flexibility to select their own examples to illustrate each concept.  As it has done with each of its redesigned courses (usually much more quietly!), The College Board gathered feedback, including soliciting suggestions during a public review period.  The AP Development Committee heard from and engaged with a wide range of stakeholders as part of our public review process. Teachers and historians, parents and students, and other concerned citizens and public officials with varying perspectives from across the country all participated.  Beginning in March, the Committee held a series of meetings in which we reviewed all of these comments and worked diligently to revise the 2014 Course and Exam Description.  These meetings included College Board leaders and content experts and ETS assessment developers as well as the high school and college teachers on the Development Committee.  In addition, we invited representatives of four major history organizations to be at the table: Justin Jakovac of the NCHE, Jim Grossman of the AHA, Jon Butler of the OAH and James Kearney representing NCSS.  This process was lengthy and meticulous.  We reviewed every statement in the Concept Outline and every part of the Framework.  We debated tone, and language and history.  This exhaustive (and exhausting) process culminated with the release of the 2015 edition of the Course and Exam Description on July 30, 2015.


Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received. The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit and addresses many of the public criticisms.  The 2016 AP U.S. History Exam and all subsequent AP U.S. History Exams will be fully aligned to the new framework. In addition, the exam format and historical thinking skills will also be implemented in the AP European and AP World history courses.  Furthermore, all teacher professional development materials and sessions are being aligned to the new framework, and classroom instruction should shift accordingly.

The 2015 edition includes significant changes throughout the Course and Exam Description that result in a clearer, more precise, and easier-to-use course for teachers and students.  It streamlines and consolidates the learning objectives from 50 to just 19, making them broader in focus and ultimately more useful for teachers in structuring their courses.  Every section in the new framework has been reviewed and improved.  Content at all levels (Key Concept, Roman Numeral, and A-B-C levels) has been refined and clarified. The degree of change varies across different components of the outline.  Statements are clearer and more historically precise, and less open to misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance.  The degree of change varies across different components of the outline. Some key individuals (such as James Madison, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King Jr.) and documents (such as the Gettysburg Address and the Federalist Papers) are now explicitly mentioned, and some themes (American national identity, liberty, citizenship) and events (World War II) receive greater emphasis.  The framework also recommends that teachers look at the country’s Founding Documents – including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers – in depth.  The concept outline has been reformatted to be easier for teachers to use, learning objectives are now printed alongside the corresponding content in the outline, and more blank space makes it easier for teachers to write in examples of the historical individuals, events, topics, or sources they use in their classrooms.  Despite feeling a little overwhelmed by more changes, teachers have been enthusiastic about the 2015 Framework.  They have said that that new edition is clearer and easier to use, and will be a terrific tool in the classroom.  We are excited about the enthusiasm with which AP teachers have embraced the focus, clarity, and balance of the new edition.

My ten-year journey on the redesign has ended, and my new school year has already started.  I am enjoying adjusting to the 2015 Course and Exam Description and am developing new ways to teach the historical thinking skills and adjusting the rubrics that I use for essays.  I am also revising my assessments.  I am proud of our final product and believe that the 2015 edition presents a picture of America history that the vast majority of Americans will appreciate and support. It is not every day in our country that public dialogue results in a better result. In this case it has, and students and teachers across the country will benefit.