Monday, July 21, 2014

AP US History Exam/Course Redesign

This post was written during a recent 8-1/2 flight from Minneapolis to Paris.

I don't like for this blog to get political; that's not it's purpose. Sometimes discussions of exploring new things may end up touching on political issues, but the focus is the new experiences...the roads of lands remote. Well in my professional career a new/remote road has become a political hot button in parts of the country. Two colleagues have each shared a recent Dallas Morning News article which relates to the College Board's redesign of the AP United States History course. I've seen other blog posts and smaller scale articles but this seems to now be coming mainstream news. With this course being one of my teaching passions I feel compelled to address some of the eronious misinfortion that is out there.

One: all of the Advanced Placement (AP) courses which are overseen by the College Board have at their heart the goal of equipping high school students to think and mentally process information in such a way as to help expand their horizons and open doors to the college and/career paths of these students in ways far beyond the traditional public high school experience. College credit which can potentially come from a qualifying score on an AP exam is NOT the ultimate goal...citizens with independent critical thinking skills is THE purpose.

Two: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has become a hot topic over the past few years. While CCSS was designed under the leadership of the National Governors' Association they have become highly politically controversial within both the left and the right. Numerous indicators, some with validity problems and others which may not provide legitimate comparisons of student success across the country or around the world, suggest that American public schools have not had the academic rigor which is considered ideal. CCSS was designed to provide a skills framework to help state departments of education and local school districts with guaranteeing that their students graduated high school with a minimum of basic skills which correlated directly with college and/or career readiness. However, the political left has come out objecting primarily that large cooperate interests and wealthy "educational philanthropists" have a disproportionate economic incentive in CCSS; the political right, skeptical of anything supported by the Obama administration object to CCSS because Obama/Arne Duncan (Sec. of Education) have identified CCSS usage as the guaranteed way to get "Race to the Top" monies to help states prepare students for the accountability assessments required under "No Child Left Behind". The sad part, to me, is that none of these political interests object to the standards themselves.

Three: CCSS is a list of skills standards and NOT content curriculum standards. Throughout the reading and writing literacy skills for English/Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science there is no prescribed content to teach. Teachers, schools, districts, and/or states have the freedom (based upon their own guidelines, to teach or not to teach: don't like Hucklebrry Finn? Don't teach it. Love Beowolf? Go for it! Climate change ideas? Consult your state's curriculum requirements. Pick any, all, none of the various underlying "causes of World War I. The CCSS literacy skills can support any of those content decisions. The Mathmatics skills are a little tricky in that certain skills are historically linked to specific courses; while CCSS suggests grade ranges for teaching certain skills it doesn't specially say Algebra Ii must be taught at grade 11. My point, if you're against, the influence of wealthy individuals, Obama, standardized testing, the bias behind lessons created by independent for profit publishing companies then be against those specifically and don't bash the standards (unless you can show me a specific skill standard that you find so ungodly and objectionable. 

Four: the claim of this particulate Dallas Morning News article is that the head of the College Board, which oversees AP courses, is linked to the CCSS design and that he is intentially using the AP United States History course and exam redesign to force even those states which never signed on yo use CCSS (I.e. Texas) and those which signed but have since rejecte it (I.e. Oklahoma) into using CCSS by embedding CCSS into the new AP course requirements. The fact is that AP courses have been producing students with critical thinking skills so far beyond their peers in regular education classes that the National Governors' Association actually looked at AP (and IB--International Baccalaureate--and other similar programs in the US and around the world) when designing CCSS. The reason that the College Board redesigns its courses and exams is that it recognizes ways to do better.

Five: the new curriculum framework for AP US History is not designed to omit significant personalities and events from the teaching of American history. A vast quantity of proper nouns are not used within the identifying characteristics of the eras of history. Complaints have been raised specifically about the absence of "Benjamin Franklin". I'd challenge any person to show me how I can effectively teach the Emlightenment within colonial North America without teaching about the inventive and philosophical spirit of Mr. Franklin. Do it; I dare you. Others want to complain about the course's focus on theme of identity and its focus on issues of ethnicity, race, and gender within the historic narrative. A) this theme is not's been a significant focus of credible American history courses for the past five plus decades. The list of topics which is the previous guide for teaching the course is filled with proper names of ethnic and racial minorities and women. B) are such complainers actually asking me to tell the story of the American narrative without the presence of representatives from these groups? That would be about as appropriate as me attempting to tell the story of my family without ANY of the women (there goes my precious mom, five beautiful sisters, spunky Baton Rouge aunts, and cousins/nieces galore), leaving out my ethnic brackgrounds (German, Irish, French Acadian/Cajun, etc.), or the new racial composition through an unlce's wife (and my wonderful cousins) or the father of my great niece and nephew. I love those elements of my family and would NEVER seek to tell my family's story without them; just as I would find it a travesty of truth and historic integrity to do so from the larger American narrative.

Six: the request of teachers to provide the only official sample version of the new test is NOT evidence of some covert operation to undermine students and parents. Did you ever stop to think that when a new test design comes along you have not yet had the chance to create a large test bank? This is the ONLY official sample test out there and as such if it becomes too widely circulated them hoe can I as a teacher legitimately use it for diagnostic purposes or other teaching strategies within in my classroom. If it's totally public, how can I keep a student from downloading it to memorize all of the answers? If a parent wants to come in and see it...I'll show it to them with no risk of losing my teaching position. But due to my personal integrity of not letting that exam ruin the opportunity of other teachers using it for teaching purpose (a courteously I'd appreciate from them) I won't let those parents leave with a copy. FYI...the College Board routinely releases versions of all of its AP subject area tests; they have actually been releasing one for AP US History annually for the past three or so years. The "secrecy" isn't a hidden's so teachers can use those released questions to guide their own in class meet the needs of their know, that whole purpose of education. This new test format does a much better job of accessing a student's ability to critically evaluate the historic record and prove herself as an analytic thinker. Is education about regurgitating a list of facts or using your mind to think and evaluate information?

I'll close by saying that I embraced the remote road of CCSS and still see its value even though Oklahoma has done away with it. Further, regardless of the obstacles I'll have in meeting the in class challenges of a revised course and exam, I embrace the remote road of the new curriculum framework and exam for AP US History.

May you too always welcome the opportunity to roam the roads of lands remote, both physically and figuratively. 

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