J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

What Lies Behind Complaints about the A.P. U.S. History Test

One of the hot topics is American historiography lately has been an attack on the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course and test guidelines (P.D.F. download).

Last month the Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling for those guidelines to be both rewritten and investigated.

The National Council for History Education, the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians have dismissed such attacks as unfounded and politically motivated. (I was interested in what the right-leaning Historical Society might say, but it’s out of action.)

I’ve never been a classroom teacher. I haven’t taken an A.P. U.S. History course in more than thirty years, and I didn’t take the exam back then because I didn’t think my class had been adequate. So I don’t feel qualified to speak to how the new guidelines will affect those high-school classes compared to what teachers had to work with before this summer.

But I can read two documents and compare them, and I’ve concluded that the R.N.C. resolution on the College Board’s guidelines is based on false statements and double standards. I don’t know whether the committee member who proposed the resolution, Tamara Scott of Iowa (shown above with party chair Reince Priebus), was responsible for those deceptions or was duped by someone else. But it’s obvious that her description of the College Board guidelines is inaccurate—so inaccurate that it’s hard to believe that a rational person acting without malice came up with it.

Before getting to the specifics, it’s valuable to consider what those guidelines are meant to be. The College Board says it’s revised the A.P. test to focus on historical thinking. The guidelines start with sections on “Historical Thinking Skills” and “Thematic Learning Objectives.” Then there’s a chronological “Concept Outline”; after stating each concept in a sentence or two, those sections say, “Teachers have flexibility to use examples such as the following:…”

Those examples are obviously not supposed to be exclusive—i.e., the only examples teachers should cover. They’re not even presented as requirements that all teachers should cover. At best, one might say that the College Board strongly suggests that A.P. U.S. History teachers include those topics in their lessons. But the guidelines clearly and repeatedly stress “flexibility.”

The guidelines’ critics have instead chosen to read the concepts and examples in the most narrow-eyed way, deciding that if the document doesn’t mention a particular person or topic by name, it has been omitted from the course and the test. Thus, the R.N.C. claims: “the Framework includes little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history,…”

That contention doesn’t survive a moment’s examination. Key Concept 3.2.I.B says:
The colonists’ belief in the superiority of republican self-government based on the natural rights of the people found its clearest American expression in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and in the Declaration of Independence.
Key Concept 3.2.II is:
After experiencing the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, American political leaders wrote a new Constitution based on the principles of federalism and separation of powers, crafted a Bill of Rights, and continued their debates about the proper balance between liberty and order.
How could anyone teach about the “American political leaders [who] wrote a new Constitution” without discussing the “Founding Fathers”?

As for “the religious influences on our nation’s history,” variations on the word “religion” appear in the guidelines twenty-nine times. The document refers to “Bartolomé de las Casas,” “converts to Christianity,” “the Great Awakening,“ “the Second Great Awakening,” “Protestant evangelism,” the “Women’s Christian Temperance Union,” and “the growth of religious fundamentalism” in recent decades. That is not “little or no discussion.”

Likewise, the word “military” appears thirty-two times, yet the R.N.C. resolution states:
the Framework excludes discussion of the U. S. military (no battles, commanders, or heroes)…
The possible examples for teachers include the “Battle of Fallen Timbers,” “Gettysburg,” “Little Big Horn,” and “Pearl Harbor,” which are all battles. The R.N.C.’s statement is factually wrong, and since a simple keyword search for “military” and “battle” would have been enough to check that, I can only conclude that someone lied.

As a sign of how badly the Republican National Committee was stretching to justify its complaint, its resolution refers to ”the College Board (a private organization unaccountable to the public).” Of course, the same description applies to any business, any private school, and the R.N.C. itself. When exactly did the Republican Party decide that private institutions were ipso facto suspicious, and how long after last month’s meeting did that feeling last?

It’s mildly amusing to note how the committee’s examples of “other individuals and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history” yet don’t appear in the guidelines have been carefully chosen not to include any white Christians: “Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust.” What are the odds of that?

In fact, that game of pointing to left-out names can be endless. The guidelines discuss the post-World War II civil rights movement in detail, and if the R.N.C. believes teaching that topic means excluding Martin Luther King, they can try to make that argument to the public. Meanwhile, I’ll ask why the committee didn’t note the inclusion of David Walker, Robert Smalls, Fannie Lou Hamer, and several other African-American activists. Perhaps its members didn’t recognize their names? Did the committee’s choice not to list W. E. B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, and Cesar Chavez among the omitted mean that it feels those people should have no place in U.S. history courses? That’s the same logic its resolution applies to the College Board.

Finally, the R.N.C. resolution puts a lot of weight on how “the APUSH course has traditionally been designed to present a balanced view of American history,” and “critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course,” in contrast to this new approach. However, it doesn’t do the basic historical work of citing documents to justify those statements—for example, a previous set of guidelines from the College Board listing all the topics the committee complains have been excluded and not listing any it claims have been wrongly added.

In fact, the College Board has never issued guidelines this long and detailed. It did so because the switch to emphasizing historical thinking over memorizable facts is a big one for teachers and students. We can debate whether that goal is possible within our present system of standardized testing. Instead, the R.N.C. (“a private organization unaccountable to the public”) has made up its own incomplete standards of what U.S. history should be, projected them into the past, and called for a Congressional investigation into why the College Board isn’t following them to the letter.


Anonymous said...

So John, if there is a congressional investigation ... do you stand ready to testify? ... please?
Chris H. of Woburn

Jimmy Dick said...

Very nice and detailed explanation, J.L. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that most of the people who are complaining are not educators. The pedagogy involved in the new test is rooted in an inquiry based pedagogical model which promotes the development of critical thinking skills.

That leads me to wonder why someone would object to the development of thinking skills?

G. Lovely said...

Sadly when one looks at the list of 'left outs' the political motivation appears painfully obvious.

John L. Smith said...

Pandering to a voting block who will never read the details.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That contention doesn’t survive a moment’s examination. Key Concept 3.2.I.B says:
The colonists’ belief in the superiority of republican self-government based on the natural rights of the people found its clearest American expression in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and in the Declaration of Independence.

A close reading of Paine's "Common Sense" shows a fulkuva lot of Bible.


J. L. Bell said...

A comment more relevant to your interests, Mr. Van Dyke, than to the topic of this article.

It's undeniable that Paine's early American writings used Biblical language and examples as part of his argument for splitting from Britain and supporting the war. He knew his 1770s audience and was adept at finding the arguments and mode of arguments that would sway them. Paine was from a Quaker family, and some biographers suggest he even did some preaching in Britain.

Paine addressed religion directly in his later writings, as you know. In those books he wasn't just using religious argument or language for political ends; he was actually discussing religious authority itself. While he was never the atheist his zealous critics claimed, Paine seems to have been more dubious about Biblical authority in those later years than is reflected in his quotations and allusions in the 1770s.