Scholars Reject College Board’s AP History Standards

Published June 30, 2015

A group of 55 academic historians is speaking out against the College Board’s recent overhaul of its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) standards.

The professors and scholars met in April to discuss the new APUSH standards and drafted an open letter in response to the AP history framework rewrite. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) published the letter detailing the scholars’ concerns on June 2.

The letter states, “The teaching of American history in our schools faces a grave new risk, from an unexpected source. Half a million students each year take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History. The framework for that exam has been dramatically changed, in ways certain to have negative consequences. We wish to express our opposition to these modifications. The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.”

The letter concludes, “A formal education in American history serves young people best by equipping them for a life of deep and consequential membership in their own society. The College Board’s 2014 framework sadly neglects this essential civic purpose of education in history. We can, and must, do better.” 

‘Seriously Deficient’ Coursework

NAS Public Affairs Director Glenn Ricketts says the new APUSH standards result in subpar coursework and will likely give students only a cursory knowledge of historical events and issues vital to understanding U.S. history.

“The new course is seriously deficient in many ways,” Ricketts told School Reform News. “It seems relentlessly focused on things like race, gender, class, or group identity. Certainly that’s a part of U.S. history, but it’s not all of it.”

Ricketts says the standards do not focus enough on important historical events, such as the founding of the country and World War II. The new APUSH should include additional and better-written standards on everything from the Constitution to the separation of powers, Ricketts says.

“Part of the problem is trying to shoehorn everything into these pre-cut categories, such as politics or economics, rather than separately teaching the events themselves,” said Ricketts. “That may force you to overlook the most important things.”

Joseph F. Kett, James Madison Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Virginia, says the new AP framework fails to provide a proper foundation of knowledge before requiring students to analyze historical events and issues.

“In essence, the proposed course aims at teaching students to run before they can walk,” said Kett. “It seeks to get them to ‘think like historians’ without requiring them to have the sort of professional information that historians have at their fingertips. Regardless of your profession, you need to master information and techniques before you can pursue issues that arise in the profession. This is as true of architects, composers, and artists as it is of doctors and lawyers.” 

Scholars Respond to APUSH

Several scholars, including Kett, wrote essays in response to the new APUSH, which NAS published on its website.

“Some have attacked the APUSH prospectus for its liberal bias,” wrote Kett. “My point is different. The course it proposes is unteachable. The key concepts thrust teachers into a conceptual haze; the examples provided to guide them are usually instruments of misguidance. Ten teachers randomly selected to teach this course will offer ten courses that differ rather dramatically in content and emphasis. The likelihood of this doesn’t seem to worry the authors of the prospectus, who celebrate the freedom of teachers to teach whatever they think appropriate to an AP course in American history.

“As one who taught the survey of American history to 1865 for more than a decade at a highly selective university, it worries me,” Kett said. “I cannot support allowing students to place out of a college survey without some assurance that they have been taught the story of the founding of the nation.”

Kett says the new APUSH lacks clarity and purpose.

“As far as I can determine, the AP course does not require students to master specific historical information,” Kett wrote. “The prospectus appears to assume that teachers will know which facts to connect to each concept, but the concepts are so general that it is difficult to see how they can form the basis of a curriculum that affords students a grip on the sort of basic knowledge of American history that professors expect that students have mastered.

“The authors of the prospectus acknowledge that in trial runs teachers have asked for examples to support the extremely general key concepts and they have responded by inserting ‘gray boxes containing possible examples’ into the prospectus,” said Kett. 

College Board to Revise APUSH

“The AP course just really falls short,” said Ricketts. “We think students are going to come away with a shallow understanding of these issues.”

“We’ve been assured the course will be revised over the summer, but it’s unclear whether the revision will address the scholars’ concerns,” Ricketts said.

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.

Image by Robert Couse-Baker.

Internet Info

Joseph F. Kett, “APUSH and the American Founding: Concepts Supplant History,” National Association of Scholars: