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The Problem With AP Classes Is Far Bigger Than ‘Imperialism’


Last week, The Federalist reported on protests against the College Board’s decision to modify its Advanced Placement world history curriculum. The modification entails removing all events prior to 1450 from the exam. The protests objected that the decision is tantamount to, as teacher Amanda DoAmaral says,

tell[ing] my black and brown students that their history is not going to be tested and then assume that that’s not going to matter. Right, the people in power in our country already are telling those same students that their history, that their present, that their future doesn’t matter. And by you making this decision, you are going along with that.

A Politico article further states that the 1450 cut-off has the effect of “effectively eliminating instruction on pre-colonial Africa, Asia, Americas and the Middle East.” This indicates a lack of historical understanding from these protesting history teachers since, while the colonization of the Americas began more-or-less at the start of this period, the Ottoman Empire and various African and Asian powers were still going strong until much later in this time period.

Unless, that is, the AP exam already had effectively relegated all pre-colonial non-European topics to the pre-1450 “periods” and, however much the “official curriculum” portrays the period after 1450 as one of global interchange, in practice, schools, and the exam itself, pick up the story again with colonialism.

But the debates about whether the history of one’s identity group is properly told in an AP class are only part of a larger issue. AP classes, and the College Board, have too large a role in defining the curriculum of American high schools due to their de facto monopoly on the college-credit (and achievement-recognition) system for high schoolers. After all, in one respect the College Board has a point when they explain their decision:

The current AP World History course and exam cover 10,000 years of history across all seven continents. No other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year. AP World History teachers have told us over the years that the scope of content is simply too broad, and that they often need to sacrifice depth to cover it all in a single year.

Colleges Usually Don’t Cram World History Into One Class

Colleges and universities typically do not cover all of world history in a single course, but in two or more separate courses. Additionally, most colleges only provide one course credit for AP World History even though the current course covers the scope of two or more college semesters.

A brief check of a couple universities shows that, for example, Michigan State University provides credit for two semesters, “World History to 1500” and “World History since 1500” for a score of 3 or above on the AP exam. Ohio University credits “World History Before and After 1750.” But other universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, Madison, simply provide generic history elective credit for any such AP exam.

The trouble is that, indeed, some colleges offer broad survey courses covering all of world history over the course of a year, and some colleges don’t. If, as might have been the case originally, the AP class was intended as a way for well-prepared high school seniors to study the relevant material at a college level, it would be entirely appropriate to cover the identical material in such a class.

AP Classes Have Consumed the Curriculum

But the concept of AP classes has taken over the curriculum, not just for seniors but at all levels, so that students as young as freshmen are taking classes paired with AP exams—specifically, a geography exam, which in turn may only provide generic elective credit. The students taking the world history class and exam may be as young as freshmen (e.g., at this Chicago-area school) or sophomores (at this school district), and may not be just the top-achievers but a fairly significant portion of the student body. These may be able to learn the equivalent of one college semester’s worth of material in a year (similar to the pacing of a foreign language class), but not two.

What’s more, the College Board’s solution to this halving of material—adding a course specifically focusing on the pre-modern world, plus a unit of geography—might be a great idea in principle, but is highly unlikely to get traction because, at schools that attempt to slot students into AP classes to the greatest degree possible (and I count my children’s school among these), they are already “booked” with the AP geography class the prior year. The school is unlikely to remove this class to replace it with a second year of world history.

Since, locally at least, students get a full point boost in the GPA calculation for taking any class labeled “AP,” it’s hard to see academically ambitious students choosing to sacrifice a designated “AP” class to learn pre-modern history even if given the choice. Also, in a perfect world, we would be able to count on students having learned something of a foundation of both geography and history prior to entering high school, but in both these subjects, it’s assumed that enough students are starting from scratch to require that the curriculum do so, too.

The loss of premodern history would be deeply unfortunate, since students learn little history as it is. While the connections between the Industrial Revolution, or the emergence of democracy in America and elsewhere, or slavery in America, or the World Wars, and our own time are easy to see, starting out as if the voyages of Columbus, or the Reformation, or the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, or the fall of the Moorish kingdom of Grenada, happened out of nowhere would lead to a faulty understanding of the world. Not to mention, there’s tremendous value in learning about ancient and medieval cultures with the recognition that “the past is a foreign country” and teaches us valuable lessons for its very foreignness.

We Can Do Better Than This Unwieldy System

This is, incidentally, not the first time that the College Board has caused problems with its AP exams. Back in 2014, their revised framework for the U.S. history exam, with its heavy leftward tilt, caused a great deal of consternation, and ultimately produced a re-write of the framework. But even a perfectly written exam has a fundamental flaw: the fact that students are expected to demonstrate an entire year’s worth of learning on a single exam and, in particular, an exam that demonstrates mastery of College Board’s particular method of constructing exams for that subject.

Add that the AP system has become a “brand name” trapping high-achieving students, and school districts that want to promote themselves as top-notch, into shoehorning all such students into a sequence of AP classes regardless of whether they’re the right fit for their interests.

What’s the alternative? It’s as simple as competition. If universities cease evaluating students by the count of AP classes taken, and high schools stop measuring themselves by the number of AP test-takers in their student body, then the door would be open for a variety of programs for promising high school students. These could include dual-enrollment classes managed through local colleges or through nationwide programs, and challenging programs that may or may not promise college credit but do offer a nationally recognized curriculum in a given subject. AP exams may have made sense in the pre-Internet age in which they originated, but surely in the year 2018, we can think much broader than a College Board monopoly.

Then, just maybe, interested students can actually learn about rather than discard the Greeks.