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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Monday, September 15, 2014

“Will This Be on the (A.P. U.S. History) Test?”

Larry Krieger, the educator most voluble in his criticism of the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course guidelines, has a quick answer to the fact I documented yesterday: that most of the topics he and his allies say are missing from the new guidelines weren’t in the older, shorter guidelines either.

Krieger has argued those topics indeed didn’t appear in the older guidelines, but they did appear in other documents from the College Board—namely, the A.P. tests themselves. In that online essay he wrote:
In fact, all of the omitted people and events listed above and in my analysis have generated numerous questions on released AP U.S. History exams. For the record, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is one of the most frequently tested APUSH items.
Why would Krieger know that? Because he built a business called Insider Test Prep by analyzing past tests to find out what topics are most likely to appear on future exams.

In 2012, Krieger used CreateSpace to publish The Insider’s Complete Guide to AP US History: The Essential Content. Its approach promises that “students do not need to memorize long lists of names, dates, places, events, and terms.” Instead, they can memorize shorter lists: “65 key terms that are regularly tested on the APUSH exam”; “Over 100 sidebar tips that tell students what to ignore and what to study”; “20 Top Ten list of key people, events, Supreme Court cases, reformers and books.”

Krieger based his book on the College Board’s existing guidelines and samples, with “40 chronological chapters that follow the College Board’s AP US History Course Description outline” and “Over 25 references to specific essays and DBQ’s found at the College Board’s authoritative AP Central website.” He promises customers that his guide “ignores topics that rarely generate questions while focusing on topics that generate the overwhelming majority of test questions.” He has argued that “This predictable clustering of questions on key figures and events enabled teachers to efficiently prepare their students for the APUSH exam.” If the course changes significantly, his book becomes less valuable.

The same change might make the next edition more valuable. Tax lawyers know that any significant change in the tax laws generates more income for them because their clients need new advice. Publishers know that a new software release is an opportunity to issue new primers on that software. And a guide to the radically new A.P. U.S. History course would probably do better than an old one.

If, that is, the same approach can work. But what if it can’t? Back in April, Trevor Packer of the College Board responded to Krieger’s complaints by saying:
Krieger is a prolific author of “Crash Course” guides to a number of AP courses, the SAT, and the SAT-II. As someone deeply invested in the test preparation industry, Krieger cannot be expected to welcome the way that AP courses and exams are being revised to emphasize inquiry and depth at the expense of memorization. His perspective only makes sense once one recalls that Krieger’s publications emphasize a test-prep, memorization mentality that will no longer be privileged in revised AP exams.
The new course’s emphasis on “Historical Thinking Skills” and “Thematic Learning Objectives” is evidently the company’s attempt to “to emphasize inquiry and depth at the expense of memorization.”

Whether that’s possible within the confines of a standardized national annual exam is another question. As I wrote before, I don’t have the relevant experience teaching or taking A.P. U.S. History courses to answer that. The exam will still have multiple-choice questions and essays to be evaluated in bulk, like a lot of other tests American students take these days. People may well discover ways to take advantage of that system—identifying what to memorize and what to ignore, as Krieger says he did.

But to get back there, Krieger would need to build up a new database of exam questions. Which might explain why one of his repeated complaints is that the College Board isn’t letting people like him know exactly what will be on the test. And the R.N.C. has echoed him with an official complaint: “the College Board is not making its sample examination available for public review, thus maintaining secrecy about what U. S. students are actually being tested on”.

Again, I’m not a classroom teacher, but my strong impression is that good educators don’t like students to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” with an obvious plan to tune out if it isn’t. And if, say, a big city school department demanded to be told in detail what parts of American history would be on an upcoming national test to ensure that its curriculum “ignores topics that rarely generate questions,” I’d expect Republicans to deplore that as a sign of falling educational standards. But that’s exactly what Krieger and the R.N.C. seem to demand.

Krieger’s economic interest in seeing the A.P. U.S. History test stay the same for another few years is apparent, but that’s not necessarily what motivates his animus toward the new guidelines. Similarly, all evidence suggests that Thomas Hutchinson would have supported enforcing the Tea Act of 1773 even if he didn’t have thousands of pounds invested in his sons’ tea-importing business, and that George Washington would have supported U.S. expansion to the west even if he didn’t own vast tracts of land in those territories. Still, the conflation of public good and personal economic interests never looks good.


Jimmy Dick said...

It was very interesting doing a little research on Inquiry based and Problem based learning today with this issue in mind. While looking at the criticism of the two issues in order to see what objections there are to these pedagogical models, one quickly begins to see a pattern emerge. Some of it goes back to the 2002-2008 when No Child Left Behind was the working model for K-12 systems.

NCLB depended upon standardized testing just like Common Core does. Anything that went against standardized testing was deemed to be wrong by supporters of NCLB and Common Core. Both IBL and PBL are on opposite sides of that spectrum by their designs. It was interesting seeing how conservative groups were for standardized testing and against IBL and PBL. I think some of that is carrying over to today although the objection to CC is about the standards themselves and the so called federal action behind even though CC was developed by a consortium of state education officials and not federal.

A lot of the arguments used against the AP History course eerily echo the same issues as the revamp of the SAT. There are some serious ethical issues involved in this right now. Basically we are seeing where companies that stand to lose millions of dollars are flaming the rightwing rhetoric with no actual factual justification. It is like the saying goes, "Follow the money."

J. L. Bell said...

I even thought of adding "#followthemoney" when I posted this link on Twitter!

I don't doubt that Larry Krieger thinks he's benefiting kids with his approach. But he appears totally focused on coaching them to a good A.P. score rather than educating them about U.S. history. Is that what helps kids most?