Anyone considering the role of Advanced Placement (AP) history in a school’s curriculum ought to begin with the following exercise:
- Describe in a few sentences what you think a good history course should be and do. What type of reading should students be assigned, and what should the classroom look like and how should it function?
- Describe what you mean by “critical thinking.” What should this look like in a history classroom?
- Describe what you mean by “intellectual rigor.”
If you answered question #3 by asserting that intellectual rigor means the rote memorization of an astronomical amount of content that is so shallowly processed that it is quickly forgotten, then what follows won’t be your cup of tea.
My argument is that AP European History is content-heavy and shallow, promotes superficial learning, inhibits curiosity, and stifles the teacher’s ability to be creative and flexible in designing meaningful learning experiences. It limits the ability of students to choose electives that allow them to pursue their interests more deeply. The culmination of the course is a vast and arbitrary test that ranks students rather than grading them. In short, it is a damaging curriculum that falsely represents the experience of taking a college history class.
The College Equivalency Myth
The notion that the AP European History course is the analogous to a college survey course is tenuous. Most college survey courses begin with the ancient world and end in the modern era and are yearlong courses. The semester break occurs generally around 1648 or 1700. The AP European History curriculum begins in 1450 and extends to the present day. There is a sound logic to that chronology, but the amount of content dictated by the AP curriculum is too vast for a yearlong high school course.
The first problem with the matter of college equivalency is one of time management. College students do not spend as much time in class as high school students, so that they have more time during the day and evening to complete lengthy or complex reading assignments. Many high school schedules allow little free time during the day and a heavy load of extra-curriculars that keep students busy into the evening. This means that the reading students do for AP classes is necessarily rushed and the comprehension shallow. No matter the diligence or time-management skills of the individual student, there is simply not enough time to consistently do the work in any meaningful way, and this shows in the brittle grasp that students typically have of the content.
A second difference is that college survey courses in history are typically designed by the professor teaching the course, and although any survey course certainly covers a broad range of historical periods, most do so with the focus and content, as well as the assessments, determined by the professor. The AP European History course, by contrast, dictates content evenly distributed across almost every major type of history. In nearly twenty years of teaching the Western Civilization survey course, I have never seen a class require mastery of anywhere near as much content as the AP European history test does. In addition, it is extremely rare for a college-level history course to test by means of multiple-choice questions, which comprise forty percent of the AP test.
Even with the 2015 redesign, the amount of content covered remains enormous. A recent (November, 2015) informal survey of one hundred high school teachers revealed that more than sixty percent of teachers currently teaching AP Euro believe that the new curriculum has not reduced content.
Another problem with the redesigned course is that it organizes material according to four chronological periods, but also arranges the material thematically. It would appear that in their excitement over the themes, the course designers forgot that this is a survey course designed for students who have not previously encountered the material. A teacher is thus faced with the Kafka-esque placement of enlightened monarchy well before students have studied the Enlightenment, the Romantic movement tacked onto the end of the Enlightenment unit with one sentence, and then much more fully developed in an entirely different time period, and the rather puzzling and certainly subjective decision that the Peace of Westphalia (if you’ve never heard of it, you are no worse for the omission) be placed in two separate time periods and mentioned nine times in the curriculum. A thematic approach is confusing for students in a survey course, but the designers of this curriculum seemed to want both a thematic and a chronological approach, and the result is a logistically-perplexing “neither.”
Finally, the AP mandates that students demonstrate “historical thinking skills,” which has added to the content of the course since these skills must be explicitly demonstrated on the students’ written work. The intent here is admirable; any student writing in history ought to be able to synthesize material, understand context, and demonstrate causation, for example. but those skills arise naturally from good history teaching and feedback on student writing. Forcing students to articulate these individual “thinking skills” is akin to trying to understand Picasso’s work by measuring the relative percentages of colors used and the mathematical properties of his shapes. It tells you something, but that something is beside the point.
The Redesigned Test: Still the Wrong Kind of Rigor
The lie at the heart of the AP history courses is that it is possible to standardize rigor in the humanities in the same way that it can be done, perhaps, in mathematics. The result, for the AP history courses, the New York Regents examination, the SAT subject tests, and any other standardized history test, is that the attempt to create a test to assess historical “rigor” ends up being a test of factual recall, and that is a superficial approach to studying history. Despite the College Board’s claims to the contrary and its assertion that the redesigned exam’s emphasis on skills reduces the required content, the AP European History curriculum sacrifices depth and meaningful learning in order to prepare students for a standardized test that measures the most superficial and fleeting sort of “knowledge.”
The College Board claims that the redesigned curriculum allows teachers to “reduce required content across historical periods to allow …greater flexibility to teach topics of their choice in depth.” In fact, the new test actually allows teachers less choice than previously, because now we have to cover the specifically delineated topics and terms dictated by the curriculum, and in many cases this has added more content.
The use of lengthy document passages on the multiple choice section of the new exam means that students will take significantly more time reading textual passages that are at best window dressing to make it appear that the questions are skill-based rather than content based. I have been using the College Board’s practice questions this fall with my students, and it has become clear that the vast majority of the multiple-choice questions require content knowledge, despite claims that the test is now more focused on skills such as reading comprehension and interpretation.
The essay questions also require mostly content knowledge, contrary to the CB’s claims that the emphasis on skills reduces content. Consider the following question, from a practice exam provided to AP teachers by the College Board:
“Analyze the ways in which the arts of the Renaissance period reflected new conceptions of the individual. (Historical thinking skill: causation)”
This question is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the curriculum framework was, as the College Board tells us, “developed by college and university faculty and master AP teachers nationwide.”  Yet this question is based on a discredited, or at least heavily-challenged historiographical approach the Italian Renaissance. The notion that the Renaissance resulted in significantly different conceptions of the “individual” has been a mainstay of the AP European History curriculum since its inception, while the fields of medieval and Renaissance history have for decades been dismantling this myth, derived almost entirely from the work of Jacob Burckhardt.
The second problem with this essay question, insofar as the AP claims that this curriculum has reduced content, is that there is simply no way to answer it without knowing a great deal about the content of Renaissance art and its relation to the (problematic) notion of Renaissance individualism. The curriculum framework provides some options regarding which artists students need to be familiar with and what major themes of the Renaissance the course should cover, but it does not reduce the amount of content that must be covered in a unit on the Renaissance. There is nothing necessarily wrong with requiring students to be able to write a substantive essay on the topic of Renaissance art that is supported with relevant evidence. A student studying Renaissance art ought to be able to articulate and support an argument about the relationship between Italian art and Italian culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The problem is with a curriculum that requires this level of detail for twenty-nine distinct units of study in a nine-month period.
A Bad Test, or the Worst Test? An Analysis of the AP European History Redesigned Exam
The habits of mind that a good history class develops are obviously important: students must be trained to take a critical approach to texts that considers author, provenance, purpose, and intended audience. Evaluating the credibility of an argument, recognizing fallacious arguments, and understanding context are crucial skills. The problem is that these skills cannot be divorced from content, which betrays the falsehood of the College Board’s claim that their new history curriculum has reduced content and increased teacher flexibility by emphasizing skills and then being more prescriptive about which content is required.
To be clear, I’m not arguing against content knowledge in history. What I’m opposed to is the focus on such an enormous amount of content in a constrained period of time that it crowds out the ability to do anything else. Especially when that content is dictated and marketed by a corporate entity serving multiple constituencies, it becomes disheartening to spend each day in the classroom with bright, capable, and curious students forced to subordinate their emerging critical abilities to the task of rote memorization and standardized assessment.
In short, the redesigned AP European history curriculum prescribes, but does not reduce, content. What makes this new curriculum more problematic than the previous test is that the redesigned exam provides students with significantly less choice than the original exam. Below is a chart taken from the College Board’s “Key Changes to AP European History”:
Key Change 6:
A new exam design allows for better assessment of thematic understandings and use of historical thinking skills.
Emphasis on discrete multiple-choice questions focuses on mastery of content knowledge:
55 minutes; 50 percent of exam score
80 multiple-choice questions
130 minutes; 50 percent of exam score
One document-based question
One continuity and change-over-time essay
One comparative essay
By reducing the number of multiple‐choice questions and adding short‐answer questions, the exam now also assesses thematic understanding and application of historical thinking skills:
55 multiple-choice questions (55 minutes; 40 percent of exam score)
Four short answer questions (50 minutes; 20 percent of exam score)
One document-based question (55 minutes; 25 percent of exam score)
One long essay question, chosen from a pair (35 minutes; 15 percent of exam score)
What is not explained in the chart above are the following distinctions between the previous (here listed as “current”) exam and the redesigned exam:
- The old exam had 80 multiple-choice questions, of which students could generally score about 20-25 or so wrong and still earn a top score on the overall exam, assuming the student did well on the essays. The new exam has only 55 multiple-choice questions, and it is unclear how many students must score correctly in order to earn that 40% of the overall score. The test is still three hours long, and yet the new test has added a significant amount or reading by adding textual prompts to groups of three or four multiple-choice questions.
- The document-based question (DBQ) on the old exam did not require any outside content knowledge, it was simply a formulaic test of a few specific skills (identifying authorial perspective, grouping like material with like, analyzing the meaning of documents, e.g.). A student could earn a top score on the DBQ even is he or she knew little or nothing about the content of the question. The new exam requires the demonstration of outside content beyond what is provided in the prompt and the documents in order to earn full credit on the DBQ.
- For each “free-response” essay (FRQ) on the old exam, students could choose one of three questions. Thus, for their FRQs, students chose two essays out of six possible prompts, and each of the six questions asked about a distinctly different historical theme and period. Now, the free-response essays (now called “long essay questions, or LEQs) give students only two prompts, and both of those prompts are on similar subject matter. For example, the above question about Renaissance art is accompanied by the exact same question, but about the period from 1870 to 1939. A student who is shaky about the relationship between art and culture is out of luck on this test; the random selection of art-based prompts has given him no other options, whereas the old test would have allowed some choices from other historical fields.
- Students have no choice in the short-answer section of the test, and each of those questions requires detailed content knowledge.
Thus, a comparison of the previous and redesigned exams reveals that the old test gave students significantly more choice and flexibility than the new test does, and at least as far as the DBQ is concerned, it focused more authentically on skill development. Combined with the tenuousness of the claim that the redesign has reduced content requirements it seems that the redesigned AP European History framework is a significantly worse test for students than the one it replaced insofar as it demands and rewards rote memorization and factual recall.
Anxiety Über Alles
I am a member of three different discussion forums for teachers of AP European history. There is a type of post that appears with some regularity in discussion threads, and to which I refer as the “drill sergeant brag.” In these posts, AP European History teachers throughout the country boast that their course is the one that students fear the most, that theirs has the lowest grade-point average in the school, and that their course requires the most studying in terms of sheer hours than any other course. There would seem to be a culture among AP history teachers that views students quaking in their shoes at the very mention of European history as the pinnacle of pedagogical achievement.
This is madness, it may be abusive, and it is certainly an attitude designed to guarantee that students never take a history course in college and thus never have the chance to experience an upper-level course taught by a scholar in the field. Does it need stating that history should not be feared? Fear and excessive grade-anxiety do not encourage intrinsic learning. Students who are anxious and fearful are students who have a brittle, shallow grasp of the material. They are afraid that they will forget some of what they have barely processed before they get a chance to circle the correct multiple-choice answer or blurt out a shotgun-blast of deracinated facts where an essay is required. But the AP exam encourages this attitude, and it cannot do otherwise because standardized history tests always lean on Herculean factual recall as evidence of “rigor.”
We Can Do Better
To answer my own question, intellectual rigor in a history class should look like deep engagement with material from a variety of perspectives, a high degree of student agency in the learning process, and a deep and critical approach to all texts and sources of information. A history class should be challenging, but it should also be invigorating. The challenge should come from considering layers of meaning, making compelling comparisons, and confronting the interpretive nature of historical knowledge. A good history class provides students with the opportunity to write often, to revise, to seek feedback, and rethink arguments. It should demand the ability to craft an argument and defend it with relevant evidence and to embrace nuance and ambiguity. Students should be adept at and confident in conducting collaborative discussions that explicate the material’s essential questions and take the conversation in compelling and interesting directions.
A good history education allows us to understand the origins of the institutions and systems within which we live and work, but it also asks us continually to apply our empathetic imagination to the lives of people who are not like us; to employ, as Edward Hallett Carr called it, our “imaginative understanding” to places and eras far removed form our own experience. A deep engagement with history helps us to develop a worldview that informs our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, the things we value and the things we oppose, our empathy for others, and the way we make meaning out of our daily lives.
And yet the AP history course actively discourages the incorporation of a historiographical approach because there isn’t time. A pause to consider the various interpretive approaches to any historical period or event would have a catastrophic effect on the almighty “pacing calendar” that drives us ever onward over the shallow waters of content. The result is that students have supposedly taken a college-level history course, but don’t have any real understanding that different historians might approach and understand the same event or era in drastically different ways.
Why it Matters
In the fifteen years that I have been teaching, I have seen the character of students change noticeably, and I believe that that change is related to the increasing AP offerings and the consequent stifling of our ability to offer engaging, relevant electives and the strictures that prevent faculty members from teaching in a manner that is authentic, relevant, and appropriately challenging to our students. My students are fearful and obedient. They value engagement and authenticity when they encounter it in school, but they don’t expect it. They want to be told the “right” answer rather than exploring for themselves, they want to reduce complex issues to the simplest form so that it can be marked correct on a test. They don’t take chances with their thoughts or in their writing. They are scared to go beyond the bare, obvious meaning of a text; in most cases it doesn’t even occur to them to do so.
A solid foundational knowledge of history is important, and this period of history (from the early modern to the modern period of Western history) is particularly crucial for students to have some meaningful engagement with. Early modern history contains the roots of many institutions and ideologies that have shaped the modern world. This course includes the emergence of free-market capitalism, socialism, Liberalism, modern Christianity in all of its many denominations, and the roots of western anti-Semitism.
If one were to understand, for example, the origins of our current struggles in the Middle East, a useful starting point might the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, much mentioned in the dispatches of ISIS, but little understood by most Americans, who shake their heads at angry foreigners with their obscure historical complaints. Americans’ inability to undertake an imaginative understanding of other people and cultures, and of the consequences of western interference in the non-western world, has redounded upon us in countless terrible ways.
The rise in America of an evangelical Christian right is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, but runs counter to another tradition that is the firm taproot of American culture, the European Enlightenment, with its secular skepticism of organized religion and its demand for religious tolerance. How are we to confront problems caused by those seemingly conflicting worldviews if we can’t even discuss them?
The issues covered in a course on early modern and modern western history must be grappled with on a deep and sustained level. This material is too important to drive by at warp speed, barely processing information as is whips by your window and forgetting it the moment the test is over. It is almost better to not teach history at all than to “teach” it via this intellectually corrupt AP program, with its cynical aims (gaming the college admissions system) its faux “rigor” and its empty self-importance. The AP European history curriculum is beneath contempt, and we should have the courage and confidence to declare that we can do better for our students.