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The AP Paradox: Diverse College Curriculum Confronts a Single Standardized Exam

Laura J. Mitchell


     Revising the AP world history curriculum and exam affords an opportunity to develop further continuities in history teaching across the K-16 spectrum. That's a lot to extrapolate from the already challenging task of curriculum revision and development. But the possibility of strengthening bridges between high school and college teaching is the element of the project that convinced me to join the College Board Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee (CDAC) and give up (quite a few) weekends with my family to refine the course and exam.

     Memories of my own high school AP experience and ongoing conversations with current AP world history teachers suggest to me that many students and teachers experience an AP history program as a sprint-distance effort sustained over the length of a marathon. While the outline is rational and the material interesting, the course becomes a matter of survival rather than a structure for academic inquiry. All three AP history courses are demanding; the geographic and temporal scope of world history provides particular challenges, the heart of which are efforts to keep the course from becoming primarily an exercise in processing information instead of using concrete examples to analyze historical processes. 

     Like many teachers of world history currently standing in front of high school and college classrooms across the country, I learned most of what I know about the field in that precarious position: in the gaze of [160] pairs of eyes [pick your number, whether it's a lucky high school class of 25 or a huge college lecture, the process is of learning world history on the job is uncomfortable]. I was lucky to find good mentors early. I still daily chant a mantra I learned from Jon Lee at San Antonio College, "Dare to omit!" No matter how many weeks you have for your class, you can't fit all the relevant, interesting details into your syllabus, so don't try.

     In applying this mantra, I am under less pressure teaching world history at a university than in a high school. There is no one looking over my shoulder second guessing what I have dared to omit this week. I set the exam topics for my classes, and so can ask the students to demonstrate what they've learned in a term we spent together. There are no standardized tests, no state standards, no principals, no bewildered parents asking why their favorite topics have been left out, no No Child Left Behind. I am aware that my flexibility as a teacher is a great luxury. I am grateful every time I get to make a hard decision. If I structure the teaching of decolonization as a comparison focused on India and Algeria, with only passing references to Vietnam, Ghana and South Africa, I don't have to worry that my students will be short-changed on a test. I can ask them to spend time carefully reading texts by Mohandas Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, learning to contextualize primary sources, read critically, and write through multiple drafts.

     I think my students are well-served by this approach, even if they might one day not be able answer the Ho Chi Minh question in a pub quiz. In a world of rapidly increasing access to encyclopedic factual knowledge, it is important to me that students take away a solid understanding of nationalist movements and be able to place events or actors into a relevant context when they encounter new information—inside or outside the classroom. This thinking process will serve them better than the ability to recite a pantheon of nationalist heroes around the world.

     I know I am not alone in this position because: 1) I talk to my colleagues; 2) I trawl the internet for syllabi; 3) the College Board says so. (Full disclosure: I'm paid for my service on the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, but I'm not an employee of the College Board; the opinions I express here are my own and were neither vetted nor approved by employees of the CB).

     In response to comments from various stakeholders—including high school teachers, college teachers, and college administrators—College Board executives initiated a revision of several subjects, a process that includes US, European, and World history. The College Board sought to create a new world history curriculum that is flexible and clearly conveys learning goals that are on par with a college-level world history class. The revised curriculum's emphasis on skills and key concepts is intended to move away from history that can be encapsulated as a list of facts. The careful work of the Redesign Commission made sure this approach aligned with what's happening in college classrooms; the contributions to this forum by Charlie Hart and Deb Johnston, both experienced teachers, affirm that the framework also reflects what they and many other teachers are already doing in their AP world history classes.

     The College Board's intention to make the AP World history curriculum look more like best-practices college classes is laudable. The published curriculum revision goes a long way in that direction. Alan Karras's essay in this forum describes the Redesign Commission's work, which started from the existing course and developed guidelines to help teachers focus on skills and big ideas. Charlie Hart's verdict that the revision is not a radical departure for many teachers emphasizes the Commission's intention that the process would result in refining—rather than reconceptualizing—a course that already had many strengths.

     When the Commission finished its work in 2008, the newly-convened CDAC began meeting. The committee members (me, Lauren Benton, David Christian, Sharon Cohen, Ryba Epstein, Frank Guridy, Bram Hubbell, and Bill Strickland) vigorously debated the range of examples to include in the draft framework, wrote sample syllabi, began preparing teacher training materials for the revised course, and started to look at sample exam questions. One central goal of our process has been to provide opportunities for teachers to pause for more in-depth study of some issues and to allow them to choose from among a range of possible examples. There are nevertheless shortcomings in this approach.

     First, the range of choices that might seem like liberty to experienced instructors may be overly intimidating to teachers new to the course. Since world history is still an emerging field not taught at all colleges, it will be at least a generation before we can expect that most high school world history teachers took a world history class in college. Consequently it is important to develop supporting materials that provides enough guidance for teachers inexperienced in the subject. One useful example is Deb Johnston's "Curriculum Redux," which offers concrete strategies for productively using the flexibility of the new Framework. As more teachers share additional examples, the ensuing conversations will undoubtedly show that despite variations in content, classes that share an emphasis on skills building will produce solid student performance across the board.

     Second, the impetus to pare down the list of events or facts considered essential knowledge inevitably led to controversial omissions. While there are no injunctions against teaching material that isn't in the curriculum, the reality is that when class time is scarce, teachers aren't likely to address issues that aren't compulsory, so omission from the curriculum strongly suggests a blank spot in students' field of vision. When state and local school board decisions limit the amount of history instruction, typically confining world history to only one year of high school, some blank spots are inevitable. Again, inculcating historical thinking skills that emphasize context, causality, and interpretation will help students fill in some of those blanks as they continue their education.

     Third, and most vexing, building in a degree of flexibility complicates the process of creating a fair, representative, and reliable exam. Choice, flexibility, and uneven temporal or geographic coverage can work in a single class, but they create tension when coupled with a common standardized exam. The tensions are palpable: how can a standardized curriculum create space for instructor discretion; how can it encourage flexibility and diversity in the course, when the final assessment is a standardized test? Framed in terms of student learning, a single standardized test is unlikely to measure how flexible, diverse, or discretionary the students have become during the year. Yet flexibility, diversity, and instructor discretion need to be part of a course that's on par with a college world history classes.

     Part of this tension is explained by the fact that college classes don't end with standardized tests. In my classes, students can chose which major essay question to respond to. Within that response, they can draw on a range of assigned readings and lecture topics, so they have a chance to show what they know. More importantly, they are not held accountable for every piece of information introduced during the quarter, and their exam is graded by someone who knows what material was covered.

     This model falls apart when you try to expand it beyond a single class, because the exam can't be tailored to specific required content. Thinking through the equivalence of AP and college exams is further complicated by the range of material covered on a single exam. The AP exam covers a whole year of instruction; it is a single assessment for a year-long course from human evolution through, say, Obama's election. My students—and their peers at colleges around the country—typically face an exam that covers just a portion of that huge time span, and accounts for between 10 and 15 weeks of work. Add that more limited scope to the ability to target an exam directly to the assigned material, and the chasm between AP and college assessment widens even further.

     A high-stakes standardized test is unlikely ever to reflect the idiosyncratic needs of college faculty. But this doesn't mean we should give up on AP—or the process of revising the curriculum and the exam for world history. Developing the framework was a productive, exciting intellectual exercise. Its goals accurately reflect best practices in high-performing college classrooms: an emphasis on reading, writing, and specific skills development that help a student construct a framework for understanding the history of human interactions on the planet. The result provides more opportunities for teachers to model how historians think and to set assignments for their students to practice those requisite skills.

     Coming up with a single, standardized, national exam to match such a framework is, however, significantly more challenging. Bridging the difference in assessment needs among high school, AP, and college classes remains difficult. A dialogue to build those bridges has already created necessary scaffolding: a framework for the AP world history course that emphasizes essential knowledge without privileging a single canon or specifying an unmanageable amount of detail. This is an important step in the process of the ongoing development of world history as a field. It will indeed be a significant turning point in world history when we meet the challenges of assessment.

Laura J. Mitchell is Associate Professor, Vice Chair and Director of Graduate Studies in the History Department at UC Irvine. She has participated in the AP reading since 2005 and served on the Executive Council of the World History Association from 2006-2009. You can reach her at


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