AP U.S. History has been a rite of passage for many Colorado Academy sophomores since the early 1990s. Their odyssey begins in May when I meet with the enrollees, lay out the expectations, announce the summer reading assignment, and offer encouragement. While some emerge from the meeting a bit disheveled, most are confident, buoyed by the fact that they have demonstrated the requisite talents to take the plunge into a course that is supposed to be the equivalent of a college level course.
Fast forward to the first day of classes, and the tensions quickly mount. The many thoughts occupying students’ minds include: “Oh my goodness! What did I sign up for? How am I supposed to read thirty pages of text in one week? Was he serious when he said that we would have a quiz each week? How am I supposed to write an in-class essay in thirty-five minutes?”
For the past six years, I justified this approach knowing that it ensured my students’ preparedness for the advanced placement exam while preparing them for the quantitative rigors of college. High exam scores may justify this approach, but I am convinced that the AP curriculum, the pace of the course, and the comprehensive exam do not demand the qualitative rigor that liberal arts colleges seek from their top applicants. The curriculum does not demand deep conceptual learning, long-term mastery, nor the development of research and analytical skills that enable independent inquiry and learning—skills that the most competitive colleges demand from our students.
The AP U.S. History exam places too much emphasis on factoids, and not enough on patterns and understanding. The College Board gives students data (key people, events, and other turning points in America’s past) with which they must reply to arbitrary questions in the absence of context. Mere memorization does the students a disservice, as they receive little education in weaving thematic strands together to show how and why changes unfolded. Multiple-choice questions can be written in a manner that requires students to think conceptually. But the AP test is not written this way. The test encourages good schooling, but sub-standard education.
AP U.S. History does not allow for analytical depth. It is “an inch deep and a mile wide.” The course covers, inadequately, over three hundred years of history. Students cannot afford to fall behind, so depth of understanding is sacrificed. Worse, teachers must succumb to a zero-sum game when they spend extra time on a difficult concept. Sadly, students do not have the opportunity to delve into complementary features of America’s rich past such as film, art, or literature. Educationally sound projects such as simulations, book reviews, guest lectures, oral histories, research papers, and field trips are sacrificed to test coverage.
In addition, the program fails to enhance or to measure the students’ ability to research, vet, and apply primary documents. It fails to measure...