Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The New AP US History Curriculum

A group of over 50 historians and other scholars have published an open letter criticizing the new Advanced Placement curriculum. You can read that letter here. They object to the "particular interpretation" of American history that " downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective."
The new framework is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. T
While many of their criticisms are true about the focus of the AP history course, as someone who has taught the class for 13 years, I can testify that this has always been the approach of the course and textbooks. This is nothing new.

What is new is how the new test grades writing. And this is the real reason that the APUSH rewrite is despised by so many teachers. In the past, student essays were grading holistically based on their presenting an well-reasoned and well-written argument using historical evidence to buttress their arguments. On the Document-Based-Question, they needed to analyze primary documents and use that information, along with outside information from history to argue their thesis. It was, I believed, a very legitimate exercise testing a student's writing ability and knowledge of history. If a student didn't make a cogent argument and support it with historical evidence, they couldn't get a good grade. I would spend the year working with students to improve on their abilities to write such essays. I was always proud that, at the end of the year, students had all improved their writing skills. Even if they never took another history class, they could use those writing skills in other situations. It is always helpful to understand how to make a well-reasoned argument using specific evidence to support one's point.

Alas, this is all gone with the new APUSH exam. They replaced the holistic grading with a detailed rubric for which students receive points for including specific tasks in their essay. For example, they got one point if they had a thesis -- no differentiation as to whether it was a poorly-written, unsophisticated thesis as long as it addressed the question. They got a point for including a synthesis point somewhere in their essay. They could get a synthesis point for relating the period of their question to some other period in time or another place geographically. Or they could analyze counter-evidence to their thesis. Most students worked in some comparison between historical events and modern times, but it always felt strained and artificial, plopped into their writing just to get that point. I could go on and on with the vagaries of the rubric, but the result was that students wrote disjointed essays trying to tick off every box on the rubric. And it was very difficult for even the best students to keep in mind all the requirements from the rubric and perform those tasks simultaneously in their writing. And it took me much longer to grade these essays because I had to keep rereading what they wrote to see if they had performed those tasks. I found that, even rather poorly-written essays could get good grades if they had performed those tasks. They are no longer graded on whether they presented a well-reasoned argument and supported it with historical evidence, but on how they perform all these tasks.

This is the week of the grading of the essays in Louisville. I'm not there, because I can't conceive of spending a week grading a thousand essays. But I'm hearing from people who are there and it seems that it is even worse than feared. One friend told me that students receive credit for including historical evidence even if the history they cited was incorrect. For that synthesis point, they didn't get the point if they included their comparison to another time period in their thesis. But if they included the comparison elsewhere in the essay, they received the point.

Every teacher I've talked to despises these new grading rubrics. We all agree that the rubrics are a major block to teaching good writing while making our own job much more difficult.

Apparently, the powers that be at College Board are starting to feel extremely sensitive about all the criticism that they've been receiving. They sent out a message to the teachers at the grading to stop complaining about the exam on social media.

And they just sent all APUSH teachers a survey to fill out. Clearly, they are worried about the sorts of criticism they've received from politicians and scholars like the letter I linked to above. We were asked in the survey if the rewritten curriculum was "more positive toward American history" or " more negative." Honestly, I couldn't pick that it was "more negative," since I felt that the old curriculum was just as negative. We were given a question to pick among options about whether the rewrite changed our teaching in a variety of ways or no change at all. All the suggested changes were positive changes such as spending more time analyzing primary documents. But the question didn't give us any negative changes resulting from the rewrite such as spending more time teaching students to write essays that tick all the boxes instead of elaborating on a well-reasoned argument. If I taught writing history essays the way I'd always taught writing, my students would flunk the test since the new rubric doesn't give credit for what College Board used to consider exemplary writing. It was a poorly designed survey question to elicit just the results they wanted. Why does that surprise anyone?

I imagine that, if we ever see the results of the survey, it will show that teachers have changed their teaching for the better. Or that teachers don't think that the new curriculum fostered a more negative approach to American history. All the negative reaction that so many of us have to the rewrite will be contained in the copious comments most people wrote at the end of the essay. But those comments can't be quantified the same way the multiple-choice survey questions can be so they don't have to be included in the report of College Board on teacher responses to the new curriculum.

So when you read conservatives criticizing the new APUSH curriculum, you should know from one APUSH teacher who is also a conservative, that those critics are missing the real shame of the rewrite - how it now forces teachers to teach writing. And I haven't even started on how the curriculum seeks to have classes deemphasize historical content in favor of broad generalizations. That's a subject for a whole other rant.

Overall, College Board has taken a test that I was proud to prepare students to take because I felt that it did a fair job of testing their knowledge of American history and their ability to use that knowledge to write essays to make q well-supported and well-reasoned argument. I no longer feel that way.

And they are supposed to start +this upcoming year the new curriculum for AP European History which I also teach. So I expect to have another year being irritated at College Board for once again ruining something good and valid and turning it into a paint-by-numbers approach to writing.

And since, these always amuse me....