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What to Expect From the Revised AP U.S. History Program

The other day I noted that a revised Advanced Placement program in U.S. history has been delayed by a year to address the concerns of teachers who had reviewed the draft curriculum framework. (The new framework for biology was released this week.)

I just got a little more information from the College Board about the planned changes, as well as the concerns expressed by teachers.

In a statement e-mailed to me by the College Board, Lawrence Charap, the director of AP curriculum and content development for history and social studies, first explained in general what is different about the new approach in U.S. history.

"Unlike the current AP U.S. history course, the new curriculum framework lays out clear expectations for what students need to understand about different periods in American history," he writes. "These understandings are written at a high conceptual level in order to allow teachers to illustrate them with appropriate examples of historical actors and events drawn from each period."

Charap noted that while "the underlying concepts are required for the course, the specific examples can vary according to the needs of particular teachers and classrooms."

As to the feedback from teachers who reviewed the framework, information on the College Board website indicates that teachers "have asked for revisions to better delineate required from optional content, and these revisions are under way."

I asked for elaboration on this point. Mr. Charap explained: "The current revisions will provide greater clarity and specificity about exactly what kinds of examples teachers can use to illustrate these essential understandings."

The College Board website highlights some core elements of the revisions planned in U.S. history. They include:

• Increased emphasis on the use of college-level historical thinking skills that enable students to actively investigate historical events;

• Increased emphasis on the history of the Americas from 1491 to 1607 and on American history from 1980 to the present; and

• Reduced content coverage in other historical periods.

A final curriculum framework will be ready for publication and distribution in fall 2011. The course revisions will then take effect in the 2013-14 academic year.

I checked in about the situation with Fritz Fischer, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado who also is the chair of the board of trustees for the National Council for History Education.

He said he was not aware of the concerns expressed by teachers, but that overall he was pleased with the direction the College Board has been heading with the revamped U.S. history program.

"I think the decision for, as they put it, 'increased emphasis on the use of college-level historical thinking skills that enable students to actively investigate historical events' is a sound and thoughtful decision," Fischer writes to me in an e-mail. "For decades, the AP U.S. history exam has been a leader in promoting the assessment of historical understanding in its inclusion of the DBQ (Document Based Question). However, the exam has also been rightly criticized by many for an overemphasis on memorization, with a large number of multiple-choice questions that often appear to only test students' knowledge of trivial facts."

Fischer notes that students often feel overburdened by the AP curriculum, and teachers tend to focus too much on coverage and not enough on understanding.

"The new curriculum and exam promise to focus more on understanding of the really important concepts and ideas in U.S. history," he writes. "History needs to be more about questions and ideas rather than answers and trivia, and the new curriculum is a step in the right direction."

With that in mind, Fischer said he hopes the revisions do not mean the AP is rethinking its commitment to this focus. Based on the information I received from the College Board, it sounds like Fischer need not worry.

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