Changes to the AP World History Course & Exam (X-Post from H-World)

Joseph J. Ferreira, Jr.'s picture

For those H-High-S members who are not subscribed to our sister network, H-World, you might find the on-going discussion about the bombshell changes in the AP World curriculum and test to be of interest:

If you have any thoughts or ideas to contribute, please subscribe to H-World to comment and I will cross-post to H-High-S when appropriate.

Joe Ferreira

Co-Editor, H-High-S

Here's is another cross-post from H-World, courtesy of David Kalivas:

"H-World has lively discussion on AP World History -- 8 posts so far -- below is a commentary I posted. If not already subscribed to H-World, then consider doing so to read more and participate in the discussion.

From: David Kalivas
The College Board's (CB) unilateral decision to abridge AP World history without input from the world history community seems odd as it excludes the community they are serving. Generally speaking, the CB’s argument for abridgment is that a year-long world history course (from the beginnings to the present) is a beast that needs taming and the expansiveness of AP World History has become too challenging for students and faculty alike. Of course, there was no mention about what is valuable, about how to provide a solid historical foundation for our students, and by extension to our communities, the CB has simply told us they have data, they know best, and they made the changes.

The solution to the CB’s concerns about AP World History should rest with ongoing discussions about how to improve, how to become more selective, and how to develop ways for expanded professional development – not a unilateral decision to eliminate world history. Make no mistake, removing the eras from the paleolithic to 1200/1450 CE is essentially removing the human past from view and saying we sprouted up over the past 1200 years. From what I’ve observed, there has been a gradual movement away from “pre-modern history” for some time and the recent AP World history decision is symptomatic of a larger problem; namely, the way many institutions, inclusive of graduate programs, tend to ignore or minimize coverage of cultural foundation periods as if they are either common knowledge or irrelevant to the present. The idea of ignoring the bulk of human history to focus on the past five hundred, or thousand years sends an important message to our communities; namely, students should remain ignorant of our world’s cultural foundations. Instead of continuing to develop strategies to engage students and prepare teachers for the expansiveness of world history, the recent AP decision has the potential to produce myopic and woefully under-prepared students. Examining the pre-1450 era, and the history of interactions and connections that have shaped the development of cultures and civilizations, helps prepare students to better understand the diversity of cultures in the present. The argument often runs along these lines: there’s not enough time in the curriculum, or there’s just too much to cover, or faculty need more time for research and professional development to teach the distant past, or the ancient worlds don’t have any relevance for students in the 21st century. There are challenges in all these areas, but let us accept the importance and relevance of these challenges and engage them with an eye toward inclusive solutions.

Without the pre-1450 era, students will not be introduced to how we emerged and developed over millions of years, let alone how the first communities and later civilizations developed into the present age. Indeed, there is no need to smash monuments and destroy artifacts when with the stroke of a pen, or the tapping of a keyboard, authorities can simply re-write the past by excluding it. Among other things, this censoring of the distant past would ignore the study of human origins and let stand faith-based frameworks enshrined by a variety of ancient creation myths that accompanied the development of early human cultures and continue to resonate as some groups insist that creationism be taught side by side with evolutionary biology or paleo-anthropology and the like. In addition to human origins, there are many examples that justify the value of a broad-spectrum world history course such as AP World History, which is also instructive for undergraduate and graduate programs that have a tendency to privilege the modern era. If we privilege the modern era then we are not introducing, let alone examining, the constants of human history: migration, cultural-linguistic changes, and the interactions and connections that have shaped the human condition since the first Paleolithic communities.

Additionally, are we to ignore the history of religious-cultural traditions? Did the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions simply appear without any connections to one another or to an interactive cultural context from the 2nd Millennium BCE to the 8th Century CE? Did Hinduism simply grow from sacred soil, or did it emerge over centuries of migration and interactions from the Vedic Age to modern era? Are we to let stand the scriptures of these and other faiths without historical contextualization that comes from evidence and analysis? Eliminating the pre-1200/1450 periods from AP World History and excluding them from undergraduate/graduate requirements may not be the wisest thing to do. In short, such a decision removes the cultural-historical rear-view mirror that is so essential as we move forward in our lives. The ancient world is not so much the distant past as it is our past and informs the world we live in, so ignoring it by excision is myopic and irresponsible.

Lastly, such a monumental decision to eliminate whatever came before 1450/1200, should have sparked a deliberative process about how to improve not unilaterally ignore the challenges that come with engaging the foundation eras of our past. On process alone, the College Board deserves a failing grade, but more importantly what does it say about AP education when the agency in charge of a history curriculum across the country makes decisions in isolation of stake-holders and world history scholarship? Among other things, it questions the veracity of the CB’s judgment."

For those following the discussion/debate over the recently truncated AP World History curriculum, there is yet another article to read, courtesy of the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History newsmagazine.

From my own view and for all intents and purposes, it just seems as though College Board has decided to duplicate/overlap AP European History, surveying most of the same time periods and more or less promoting a "West and the Rest" approach to the AP World History course by this move.  Of course, with the notoriously "non-profit" College Board seeking to maximize testing fees (er, ummm, setting high standards for enrolled students), the low passing rate on the AP World exam might well be a genuine cause for concern.  

Given the recent changes to the entire MA state K - 12 history & social sciences curriculum frameworks (with a two year sequence in World History now all-but-truncated to a single year), there seems to be a greater emphasis on Western Civ by the powers that be and a renouncing of progress made over the past thirty years to introduce students to more of the non-Western societies and history than most of us of a certain age ever experienced in our Western Civ courses.

I am still unsure why schools use AP curriculum at all, these days. Curriculum/Assessment should be designed by teachers for their students, while abiding by state standards. AP is an outside body that makes students pay to learn. 

While I appreciate the addition of a written source analysis section of the AP exam, the overall emphasis on preparation for a multiple choice exam is just flawed pedagogically. Assessment and instruction comes in many forms. Do most employers expect their employees to excel at multiple-choice tests? (Beyond possibly taking a handful of professional exams in their lifetime, what is the purpose?) 

As a history professor at a small state university, I am constantly frustrated by the lack of flexibility of thought by students who are admitted with AP credit. When they skip right to an upper level class, they have no understanding of historiography or that history itself is open to interpretation and changes over time. They often report that the best thing about their AP class was the time after the exam when the could focus on projects. Why aren't school districts scrapping AP? I honestly don't get it.

Lori Gemeiner Bihler
Associate Professor of History
Framingham (MA) State University


I am a High School administrator, and a former Social Studies teacher, and I can offer some responses to Professor Bihler's question about why school districts offer AP courses to students.

The answer I offer is two-fold: Many parents like to see a District offer advanced classes in a variety of subject areas, and, in my District at least, AP is the primary conduit for this. Please note that when I say "parents," I could just as easily say "voters" or "constituents." Elected School Boards and the administrators they hire have to keep the community happy. Yes, this is basically politics, but, as the late Speaker O'Neil famously said, "All politics are local," and you do not get any more local than school districts, in my informed opinion. An unhappy electorate/parental community does not easily vote for school levies and bonds, nevermind how they act when School Board members are up for re-election. In my opinion, the more advantaged a community is financially, the more pressure schools get to "step up" and offer advanced classes.

Secondly, for many kids who are not from economically advantaged homes, AP DOES offer an entry-way into college-level curricula, and, perhaps, more importantly from the viewpoint of the kids and their parents, success on the AP exams means they earn credit at most universities. This means that they save money on college tuition and other costs. Saving money on college costs is a huge factor in why this appeals to kids and parents. Plus, colleges say that they look favorably at AP courses on transcripts. Kids wanting into the top tier colleges feel they need every possible advantage to be admitted.

In my professional opinion, (and, to be clear, this IS my opinion, and does not reflect official policy or the opinion of my employer), so long as parents want advanced options for their kids, and as long as colleges encourage the taking of such courses through granting credit and casting a favorable eye on transcripts containing AP courses, then schools will continue to drink the College Board Kool-Aid and offer AP. Also, as long as four-year colleges continue to be so darned expensive, students and parents will try every means possible to reduce costs, but that is another topic altogether.

Thank you,

Roger Lee

Thank you for this thoughtful reply. I just wish colleges (and parents) would recognize that the students who arrive at college with AP credit are often not ready to go directly into upper-level courses. If only colleges would stop accepting AP credit as an equivalent to college-level coursework, at least in history.

I wonder if you are finding that high school teachers are less eager to teach AP than before. I see this trend in the more innovative districts. The traditional ones tend to like content-heavy multiple choice exams for both their AP classes and their non-AP ones.

Lori Gemeiner Bihler
Associate Professor of History
Framingham (MA) State University

I am sorry that I have not read the entire stream, but am just responding to Professor Bihler's thoughts. Having taught history and anthropology at the college level and now teaching at the high school level, my AP US and AP Human Geography students read a book or two over the summer, read their entire textbooks and read articles and (they don't exactly know it) my AP US students read two other books during the school year. I give reading multiple choice quizzes to get students used to the level of AP m.c. questions, but they also have many written assignments during the school year. Some are essays focused on the DBQ or human geography types of questions, but other written assignments are to pursue a question of interest. In my non-AP classes, I give exams with multiple choice, short answer and matching. I have pulled essays away from exams as I've found over the years, that some students would rather avoid writing and take a zero on that section rather than attempt to write a brief essay. By making essays separate, students cannot skip that part so to speak. Also, looking back at an earlier comment, students must pass the writing portion of the AP exam as well as the multiple choice, so they should be able to write at a decent level. I do not think it's the AP test per se, but rather that fewer students are reading extensively, fewer students are reading in general and more students are English Language Learners, also seeing less curiosity and more "tell me what I need to know" -- for all these reasons & more, many students may not be ready for more advanced history courses.

I basically think of the purpose of AP courses as a way for students to step out of comfort zones, to prepare for the pace of college, and to express to college that they are interested in learning and pushing themselves. I was honestly never eager to teach AP as I think teaching a US course in 50 year increments would be more effective in going deeply and getting to know the people of history, rather than going shallowly? Of larger concern is that students are not very interested in taking AP history classes as they prefer AP bio or chem or other STEM courses - this is of serious concern. Perhaps colleges should only accept a 4 or above rather than punting the whole thing?

Linda Morse

Lots here. I'll focus on three things - assessment, historiography, West and the Rest in WHAP:

Yes, it would be great if history teaching became more focused on reading, writing, and discussing. And that's about it. Let me recommend Mike Schmoker's _Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, 2nd Edition_ It is a manifesto for literacy across all subjects. I give it my highest recommendation. All pre-practicum and methods teachers should assign it!

Although I have not given a multiple choice assessment outside of AP class in probably a decade I have seen many excellent m.c. questions that in my opinion do check for student's ability to think historically. I actually plan on incorporating more no-stakes (low-stakes) multiple choice questions to begin or end classes. There is a good research base on why that is a good strategy.

I can't speak to how other teachers teach (even in my own building), but my AP world course dealt with historiography to a great extent. Much more than my survey courses from college - although, ahem, that was a while ago. (In fact, I don't remember much historiography in my upper level classes either and I did not have to take a historiography class - I know that is now a requirement.) Having been charged to teach a US course for the first time in over a decade it seemed like APUSH sample syllabi had at least a focus on historiography.

Lastly, I would push back on Joe's belief that if the AP world course was 1500-present it would be a West and the Rest course. It wouldn't. The argument though is that by just focusing on that period the West is either on the rise or dominant. That is hard to argue with, but a look at the standards shows that there are plenty of standards that show a global perspective and human agency in reaction to Western expansion. Much different than many state standards. Now to tie it all back to Schmoker's book. He recommends cutting standards - even states that it would take 21 years to cover standards adequately. The AP world teachers want to keep the long scope of history but are not necessarily for keeping most of the standards (say a 30% cut) - that would be a different fight than just lopping off most of the year's covered. The happy medium which has not been attempted is to do that weed the standards of a third of its content through all the periods.

Jeremy Greene
Chelmsford HS

In reply to Professor Bihler's question about are teachers more or less eager to teach AP, again, in my experience, and at my school, we have no shortage of Social Studies teachers who are lining up to take on AP. We have a veteran AP Civics teacher retiring this year, and more than one teacher wants to take over that program. Not so much in the sciences, interestingly, though. All of our English and History AP courses push extensive work in writing and essay responses, but, going back to my 'drink the Kool-aid' comment, we do as the College Board 'strongly recommends.'

Sorry for the very late response...

Roger Lee