College Board Rewrites Advanced Placement U.S. History Standards and History Itself

Published September 29, 2015

When the College Board rewrote the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) standards in 2012, many scholars and historians saw it as an attempt to rewrite history. As the president of the National Association of Scholars, I set out to find the truth about the new APUSH standards, which are intended to guide teachers in high school classrooms nationwide.

History is essentially the record of men and women making important decisions under pressure and with imperfect knowledge of what lies ahead. It tells us what people decided to do and how their decisions worked out. In the past few decades, academic historians have created several “new” kinds of history: history playing up abstract social and economic forces; history “from below,” concentrating on people who had little power and who were often victimized by others; and history as the story of triumphant social movements and ideologies.

APUSH 2012 marked the victory of all these “new” forms of history over the record of men and women making important decisions. Written in such a bland, colorless way, for several years nobody really noticed the defects of the rewritten APUSH standards, but in early 2014, a former high school Advanced Placement (AP) teacher, Larry Krieger, and a lawyer, Jane Robbins, teamed up to write a handful of articles in which they declared there were serious problems with APUSH 2012.

Krieger and Robbins noticed, for example, George Washington had somehow gone down the APUSH memory hole.

“[There is] no discussion of his military leadership, his personal sacrifice to accept the call to become the first President, or his wise and steady leadership during the tumultuous first years of our nation,” Krieger and Robbins wrote.

Banishing Historical Figures

Krieger and Robbins spotted what others had missed. APUSH treated the legacy of British colonialism of America as merely “a rigid racial hierarchy,” never mind bringing the Magna Carta, common law, the rights of citizenship, and respect for personal liberty to the continent.

APUSH banished many of the best-known figures in our history. No James Madison. No Dwight Eisenhower. No Martin Luther King Jr., though the APUSH drafters somehow found room for lesser-known figures, such as Chief Little Turtle, David Walker, and Mercy Otis Warren.

APUSH likewise omitted many of the key documents of American history, from the Mayflower Compact to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it offered suggestions AP teachers use documents such as the Clean Air Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Krieger and Robbins noticed “a leftist slant” in APUSH, as well as “a general view that academic historical knowledge is unnecessary.” The APUSH writers were explicit about demoting “historical content[, such as names, events, dates, etc.,]” in favor of what they call “historical thinking skills.” Those “skills,” at least in the abstract, sound wholesome. They include things such as contextualization, historical argumentation, patterns of continuity and change over time, and, of course, historical causation.

How a student is supposed to acquire these skills without first acquiring “names, events, dates, etc.” is a central APUSH mystery. Well, perhaps not entirely a mystery. If history is reduced to a narrative of the glorious struggle of progressive forces against the forces of racist, imperial, class-based, and sexual oppression, the “historical content” is a matter of mere detail.

Reading APUSH

Not long after Krieger and Robbins began to voice their complaints about APUSH, a friend asked me whether there was anything to their criticisms. I was skeptical. The College Board, more than a century old, is among the most respected bodies in American education, and the Advanced Placement standards and examinations go back to the 1950s. It seemed unlikely the College Board, of all things, would go off on an ideological tangent like this.

But part of my job as the president of the National Association of Scholars is to run down rumors of malfeasance. So I went to work on the 134-page APUSH document. The length itself was a surprise. APUSH used to be a five-page outline of topics, which left the execution up to the classroom teachers. The new APUSH, which was slated to go into effect in fall 2014, replaced that handcart with a Metroliner. APUSH 2012 exuded ambition. Someone was intent on taking control of how American history is taught.

As I read deeper into the new standards, the picture darkened. Krieger and Robbins were right: APUSH 2012 was largely political propaganda. They had accurately reported some of the major omissions and the emphases of favored left-wing causes. Sure enough, Ronald Reagan was known for “bellicose rhetoric,” and World War II was to be understood through the prism of “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb[, which] raised questions about American values.”

Much Worse Than Imagined

Krieger and Robbins had only scratched the surface. APUSH 2012, on closer inspection, was carefully thought through. It amounted to a full-on deconstruction of traditional American values. For example, the APUSH standards presented the nation’s early years as a matter of peaceful, good, ecologically well-adjusted Native Americans encountering rapacious Europeans.

Some Europeans, however, were described as better than others. The live-and-let-live French are defeated in the French and Indian War by the British, who flood the continent with land-hungry colonists who bring with them the racist, class-minded hierarchy of their home country and plant in the New World their system of exploitative capitalism.

The reason APUSH 2012 radically downplayed the American Revolution is this: In the APUSH vision of things, the Revolution was just a changing of the guard. One set of CEOs were chased out by another. The local aristocrats bested the offshore aristocrats. The new elite picked up where the old one left off, and the downtrodden remained where they were, except the seeds were planted for “struggles over the new nation’s social, political, and economic identity.”

The struggle that ensued and continues to this day, in the world of APUSH 2012, is the struggle of identity groups to gain some power for themselves. That’s why World War II, for example, pivots on “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation.” The whole of APUSH 2012 is constructed out of these omissions and assertions. It was, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger, “a left-wing dream. … obsessed with identity, gender, class, crimes against the American Indian and the sins of capitalism.”

Fighting Back

When I saw what the College Board had done, I took several steps to reverse its actions. One was to write and post a preliminary report on the situation. Another was to contact as many college historians and writers on public affairs as I could think of and advise them to bring attention to APUSH. Many did.

The College Board’s immediate response was a collective sneer. Its representatives and proxies derided the critics as ignorant nobodies who wanted patriotic flag-waving and feel-good myths in place of the brilliant historical analysis embodied by APUSH.

The College Board stuck with that sneer for about six months, but then it seemed to notice the critics were rapidly gaining credibility both with the broader public and with major academic historians.

In June 2015, I posted to the National Association of Scholars website an open letter from more than 120 professional historians. It begins, “The teaching of American history in our schools faces a grave new risk,” and in very measured language it indicts the 2012 APUSH for its “scrubbing” of “vivid and compelling narrative,” its reliance on “bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces,” and its “notable political or ideological biases.”

The College Board took note of the developments leading up to this open letter. It stopped stonewalling, organized its version of a listening tour, and appointed a committee to revise APUSH. The result was a new document issued at the end of July, which we might call APUSH 2015.

Did We Win?

At The Wall Street Journal, Henninger summarized APUSH 2015 with the headline, “Hey, Conservatives, You Won.” Susan Berry at Breitbart countered with the headline, “Conservative Victory on AP US History Framework? Not So Fast.” So which is it?

Much as I would like to share credit for a major victory over the forces of political correctness in American education, APUSH 2015 is more a tactical maneuver—a feigned retreat—by the academic left than a victory by conservatives. The College Board was very smart. It went through the 2012 APUSH line by line, word by word, and stripped out nearly everything that was easily recognizable as special pleading for progressive causes or an expression of identity group grievance. Ronald Reagan is no longer described as “bellicose.” The use of the atomic bomb against Japan is no longer linked to the racist internment of civilian Japanese Americans.

APUSH 2015 greatly expands the section on the American Founding, adds mentions of historically important individuals (Madison is back in), recognizes the importance of American technical knowhow and inventiveness, and adds a nod to “American exceptionalism.” All of this goes to Henninger’s side of the ledger. Conservatives and all fair-minded people have something to celebrate.

But the cork should stay in the champagne bottle, for three main reasons. First, the College Board has changed the formal standards, but it has left the AP examinations exactly as they were: matched to the 2012 standards, as are the textbooks, instructional materials, and teacher training. Changing the standards means nothing until these components change too. The teachers have to teach to the 2012 standards for their students to succeed on the AP tests.

Second, the College Board stripped out the conspicuous expressions of left-wing bias but didn’t change the underlying narrative. APUSH 2015 still represents a cynical deconstruction of the American past. It is materialist in spirit and reckons with American ideals as though they are strange concepts that somehow appeal to a few people. The phrase “American exceptionalism” appears once, and it is not given definition, context, or example.

Third, APUSH is not a standalone enterprise. It is connected to Common Core and College Board’s ongoing project of “aligning” all AP tests to Common Core. David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, now serves as president of College Board and is making sure his vision of national standards will be extended from Common Core’s vision of English language arts and mathematics to every other area of K–12 study. The AP European history standards have recently been released and—surprise, surprise—are a close ideological match with APUSH 2012.

In short, the 2015 revision of APUSH is one of those things that is too good to be believed. The closer you look, the less you’ll like.

Peter Wood ([email protected]) is president of the National Association of Scholars, a network of scholars and citizens with a commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. 

Image by Pete. 

Internet Info

Letter Opposing the 2014 APUSH Framework, National Association of Scholars, June 2, 2015: